Cornish Theatre

Author Alan Kent talks about his latest book.

Think of theatre and you’ll probably conjure up images of London’s West End or a Shakespeare play at Stratford. But do you immediately think of Cornwall? Well, perhaps not.

 

But with Alan Kent’s recently published book, The Theatre Of Cornwall, it’s time to think again as the author and playwright takes readers on a journey through Cornwall’s amazingly rich theatrical past.

 

So where did it all begin? “That’s hard to answer precisely,” says Alan. “It depends on how you define a performance. Theatre as we recognise it originated from the Athenian comedy/tragedy style in the fifth century BC, which gradually made its way across Europe. But through what I call in the book ‘ritual, community and landscape’ ancient people in Cornwall would have had specific customs and festivals to welcome the seasons and to celebrate pagan gods which could be defined as legitimised performances, passed down orally throughout the centuries.

 

The first real clues to established theatre in Cornwall are found in a 12th century manuscript containing Cornish /English translations where two key words were found by Alan. “The Cornish word ‘bardh’ (bard) is translated as a buffoon or mimic, which I think better translates as actor or comedian” he explains. “And the other ‘pridit’ meaning poet. So I think there were two classes of performers around at that time; poets composing tales and the bards travelling around the county performing their works such as the tale ‘Tristan and Isuelt’ which would have been entertaining audiences from around 500 AD”

In the early medieval period, saintly culture was a big influence. “Cornish people would have seen their local saint as a pagan superhero who gets Christianised and there would have been tales of their origins and special powers” says Alan.

 

It would have been at this time that the famous cycle of Cornish miracle plays, the ‘Ordinalia’, was written along with other surviving saints plays, like ‘St Meriasek’ about the patron saint of Camborne which involved a huge cast of over 100 performers and told the story of the saint’s good deeds and curative powers. This was also a cuttingly political play, poking fun at Henry Tudor who was clamping down on church practices and the use of the Cornish language. But as the play was performed in Cornish, the establishment weren’t able to understand the criticism, which in turn struck a blow for Cornwall’s cultural independence.

 

By the 15th century Playing Places or ‘Plain an Gwarry’ in Cornish were common in the county. These arenas where community performances and sports took place provided a kind of solidarity of nationhood as the language was used to define the community and poke fun at the overlords. 

 

But in the 1600s during the reformation, Cornish drama was deemed a little old fashioned and because of the restrictions on entertainments, the puritans associated theatre with ‘…drunkenness, cursing, gambling, card playing and general immorality’, the county entered a theatrically dry period.

 

However on the London stage as Alan reveals, Cornwall became sexy. “At this time the periphery of Britain supplied the playwrights of London theatre with interesting and wacky characters and Cornwall was a popular source. In William Rowely’s comic play ‘A Fair Quarrel’ written around 1615, two Cornish characters, Chough and Trimtram go to London for Chough’s arranged marriage to a fine lady.  Chough a rough and ready landowner plays the clown by hugging his fiancée with affectionate Cornish wrestling holds! Although the playwrights mockingly referenced locations in Cornwall, and portrayed the Cornish as boorish and uncultured, the characters always came out on top as shrewd operators, defeating the London wits”

 

By the 1780s urban theatre begins again with performance spaces like the Assembly Rooms in Truro and the Union Hotel in Penzance and continued until the mid 1800s when mass emigration saw tens of thousands of Cornish people leave the county. Alan explains. “Paradoxically those emigrants took Cornish theatre with them building theatres and telling their stories in their new home far away. If you go to Mineral Point in Wisconsin USA, you’ll find a grand opera house built by Cornish miners and in Calumet, Minnesota programs from the local theatre in the 1890s features hundreds of Cornish acts that performed there”

 

As Cornwall’s heritage went global composers such as Wagner with his opera Tristan and Isolde and Gilbert and Sullivan with the Pirates Of Penzance, were attracted by the county’s theatrical traditions, too, and by the beginning of the 20th century there was a huge a energy to revive the ‘Celticisity’ of the past with performance areas like the Minack Theatre at Porthcurno and language activist mining old Cornish plays for source material. Post war Cornwall saw a revival of companies taking theatre back to the masses. As Alan explains it was more of an economical choice than artistic. “Without a permanent space, it was cheaper to stage performances in village halls, quarries and open spaces reaching a wider audience, which ironically in the 21st century has become trendy. It’s classic poor theatre gone full circle”

 

Fortunately to this day, with local companies like Kneehigh, Miracle and Alan’s own company Bish Bash Bosh, performing right across Cornwall and beyond, the theatrical traditions of the county are very much alive continuing to bring exciting and innovative local stories to the community as poets, playwrights and actors have been doing for thousands of years.

Alan Kent’s The Theatre of Cornwall- Space, Place, Performance.

Info at www.redcliffepress.co.uk

 

Photos: Julia Chalmers 2009