Sunday, 19 June 2011

Back to the Minack

During one of my first visits to Cornwall, my now-husband took me to the scenic Porthcurno beach, where sunbathers can frequently look out and see dolphins frolicking in the bay. We climbed up the steep cliffs, atop which perches the Minack Theatre. My husband had never been inside and he'd hoped we could have a look around, but unfortunately a play was scheduled for the afternoon and we didn't have tickets. That was nearly 2 years ago, and not until this past week did we finally get the chance to go back--this time as audience members.

(A view of Porthcurno beach from just outside the Minack Theatre. The climb up wasn't so bad, but on the way down I got a bit wobbly-kneed because I was able to see just how steep and treacherous the path was. I definitely prefer driving up, as we did last week.)

The Minack has quite an interesting history. Given the tumultuous and unpredictable weather around here, one might think that the last place an open-air amphitheater should be located is the Cornish coast. It was conceived in the 1930's by Rowena Cade, a Derbyshire native who moved to Cornwall with her mother after her father died. Ms. Cade was a remarkable woman who, as far as I can tell from the biography provided on the Minack Theatre's website, did not seem to care about any of the conventions of her time. She appears never to have married and did an amazing number of very "un-feminine" things throughout her lifetime--during WWI, for instance, she selected and broke horses to be sent to soldiers abroad. After she moved to Cornwall, she designed and made costumes for a local production of Midsummer Night's Dream. The success of that play led to a performance of The Tempest the following year, prompting the design of the theater itself; the previous show had been performed in Ms. Cade's garden, but this one was to be on a grander scale and needed more space for both the show and its audience.

The original was only a very rough version of what is in place today. Over several decades, Ms. Cade built the theater from the ground up--literally. Not content to merely fund the endeavor, she played an active role hewing seats, carting rocks and cement, decorating, and gardening. During WWII, all her efforts were undone and she was forced to rebuilt the theater from scratch. For many years it was not a very lucrative endeavor, and no charitable or cultural organization seemed interested in taking over; during this time, any deficits not made up by ticket sales were covered by Ms. Cade's own bank account. Not until the last couple decades has the theater truly begun to thrive; it now offers nearly 20 acts per summer and has an active gift shop and restaurant where visitors can stop by from May through September. Ms. Cade died in 1983 at the age of 89 and to her final day she continued to play an active role in caring for and managing the theater. Before her passing she drew up plans for a roof/awning to prevent audience members and actors alike from getting wet if the weather turns nasty. Overall, quite an impressive set of achievements for someone who apparently didn't get anything more than a high school education and was born in an era when women weren't expected to be either independent or creative.

Minack tickets went on sale early in the spring and my husband and I quickly sprang into action. I am terrible at estimating crowd numbers, but I'd say that the theater seats 300 at most; we've previously been told that shows sell out fast. We decided to go to 3 shows: Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Death of Sherlock Holmes, and Much Ado About Nothing (which should fill the Shakespeare-sized void in my life that was left after I moved away from Williamsburg and its annual Shakespeare festival).

Predictably, we woke up to horrific weather on the day of the show. That's Cornwall for you. The Met Office forecast, which is broken up into 3-hour chunks, showed cloudy/rainy skies at 4, but then a big shining sun by 7. As I looked out my window all day, I felt very skeptical about this prediction; the clouds seemed very dark, very thick, and very stationary. But, lo and behold, not only did the rain stop, but the clouds dispersed and the evening became absolutely lovely; even better, all of this happened by a quarter to 7, so the sun even managed to gain the upper hand 15 minutes early.

(A view over the Minack headland, and the receding cloud cover, from the parking lot. Two fellow theater-goers were watching my photography efforts with great interest. I can't imagine what they found so intriguing about a grown woman photographing a stuffed flamingo with her iPhone.)

The only thing I was worried about was the wind. It was great for pushing the clouds away, but not so great for sitting in for a couple of hours. We'd worn multiple layers and packed waterproofs, and I'd even brought a fleece blanket, but the Cornish wind can be pretty intense. I was convinced I'd have to go into the gift shop and buy myself a hoodie, but luckily the design of the theater is such that it provides shelter from wind coming from almost all directions. It was a bit nippy towards the end of the evening, but nothing too uncomfortable.

The layout of the theater is proper Roman amphitheater-style, with two levels of stone-lined terraces. Some of the seating in the far back allows for people in wheelchairs, and there are a couple of "box" seats, but most people just perch on ledges. The theater rents out handy little folding chairs so you can have a back rest. My husband and I got the opportunity to snag seats in the back row of the lower section, though, so we could lean against the wall.

(A view of the theater from our seats. The play was just beginning; the "diggers" (fox, badger, and rabbit), were introducing themselves to the audience.)

Although you can buy snacks and hot beverages, most people bring their own food. We stopped at Tesco on the way and bought a little smorgasbord--hummus, guacamole, veggies, baguette, pasta salad, ham, cheese, apples, M&Ms. If I'd been the people next to us, I would have been jealous. We arrived about 20 minutes early, so we got most of our eating done before the show started. That gave us the opportunity to take in the view and look at birds. Actually, I looked at birds during most of the show, too--there is so much avian activity up there, it is pretty distracting. I also kept thinking that every other wave was a dolphin, shark, or whale, but that was just wishful thinking (however, friends of ours have reported interesting sightings mid-show, so I know it's possible!).

(You may recognize this view of Porthcurno beach--it's the same one in the first picture, only 2 years later and with nicer weather. However, it was so windy that Florian de Fal could barely sit up.)

I was very excited to see Fantastic Mr. Fox because I always loved the original book by Roald Dahl, and I thought the recent movie was, well, fantastic. Unfortunately, the version we saw at Minack was a bit childish--a little hammy and pantomime-y, though the kids did really get into it. For anyone who is not familiar with the story, it tells of how 3 brutish farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, decide to retaliate against the fox that raids their stores. They lie in wait outside his den and manage to shoot off his tail as he comes home from thieving. Mr. Fox then holes up with his family while the farmers wait outside with their shotguns. They become increasingly aggressive about chasing him out, ultimately digging a huge hole and knocking down the tree under which his den is located. Not only the foxes, but also all other nearby diggers, are cut off from their food supply and begin to starve. Mr. Fox comes up with the solution of digging a path into the farmers' buildings, from which the animals can steal all the food and drink they need. Meanwhile, the 3 farmers keep waiting, and waiting, and waiting...and the reader is given the impression they will wait forever while the diggers slowly plunder all their stores.

During the parts where the animals were digging tunnels, the actors chanted, "Dig-a-dig-a-dig, dig-a-dig-a-dig, digga-digga-digga-digga, dig, dig, dig!" and pretty soon everyone in the audience was participating. The company used a huge variety of instruments to indicate behaviors, which was creative and also kind of nice for people who were sitting farther away and maybe couldn't see as well; cellos warned of danger, drums indicated gunshots, flutes were whistling, etc. One character played cello, violin, and flute, which I thought was pretty impressive. Their giant, hinged, Pacman-shaped mesh cage was a perfect way of illustrating the actions of digging machinery, and their chicken hand puppets were both funny and oddly accurate (who knew that chicken behavior could be mimicked so well with just a flick of the wrist?). Towards the end of the show, the cast performed a song called "Cider Inside Her," which describes how everyone will feel better once they've had some of the food and drink that the foxes have stolen from the three farmers. Unfortunately, it sounded as though they were singing "Inside her, inside her, inside her," giving the whole song a bizarrely sexual sound.

Even though Fantastic Mr. Fox wasn't the best play I've ever seen, it also wasn't the worst, and it was nice to sit out and watch the sun go down by the shore. Actors certainly couldn't ask for a lovelier set than the Cornish countryside. I am excited to go back and see the other 2 shows, although I'm not feeling particularly enthusiastic about the drive. It only takes about 45 minutes to get to the Minack from Falmouth, but some of the roads are quite narrow and windy; during our first visit, we pulled in to the parking lot of the Penzance Tesco on the way back from the Minack so that I could recover from some serious car sickness. Unfortunately, that is just the price you have to pay to take in the Cornish culture!

Although this post doesn't have a particularly masculine or father-ish theme, I would still like to dedicate it to all the dads in my family, particularly my own--Happy Father's Day, everyone!

Saturday, 4 June 2011

How to enjoy a Cornish summer

Over the past week, it got increasingly warmer with each day, which created a lot of excitement around town. Of course, any sort of change in the weather causes excitement, since it makes the obligatory meteorological portion of all conversations much more interesting. But this was particularly exciting because it's June already, and we've all been hoping that summery weather might eventually make an appearance here in the southwest of England.

The first trick to enjoying a Cornish summer is being ready, at the drop of a hat, to enjoy warm weather when it arrives--because it might not stay long, and it might not reappear. On days when I am still wearing sweaters and fleeces, it is not uncommon to see people in sleeveless shirts ("vests"), shorts, and/or flip-flops; Brits are ready to take advantage of the sun whenever they can, even if the actual temperature is not all that comfortable. To this end, always wear a sleeveless shirt or t-shirt layer underneath all your warm clothes, and keep your diving/snorkeling/swimming gear in the trunk of your car so you can make a quick getaway when needed.

The second trick is avoiding sun block at all costs, and, if possible, applying liberal amounts of suntan oil. Because sunny days are hard to come by, you will want to get as tan as you can, as quickly as possible. Yesterday the weather was absolutely spectacular, and on my way home from work I passed many people who were heading home from the beach with record-breakingly red skin and unbelievable tan lines. (If you're not a native to Cornwall, you may find this view nearly as painful as a sunburn itself.)

The third trick is heading to a beach as soon as you possibly can. If the best weather falls on a work day, you might want to call in sick or come up with a good excuse not to go to the office; I know plenty of people who actually do this--especially when the surf happens to be good. Keep in mind that you are still in Cornwall, so once you're at the beach you're likely to run into some wind. Thus, you might consider taking along a screen to create a wind break for yourself:

If you're really lucky, it will be so warm that you might even need to generate some shade. If this is the case, it's always a good idea to take along an umbrella.

This is especially useful if you have babies, or are an indigenous Brit, very few of whom have the genes that allow for an intermediate stage between "pasty" and "well done."

Regardless of the air temperature, if you're on a beach and it's sunny, you're probably going to want to go swimming. If you're a true Brit--and, most especially, a true Cornishman--you will get in the water in your swimsuit ("swimming costume") and frolic just as happily as if you were sitting in a hot tub. But if you're sane, you will don a wetsuit in order to make yourself a bit more comfortable.

("Comfortable" here being a relative term, since wetsuits can be a nightmare to put on, and may be uncomfortably warm until you immerse yourself in the water.)

You might also consider grabbing a mask and snorkel so that you can take in some of the underwater scenery. But beware--if the water hasn't warmed up sufficiently, swimming around face-down can give you a serious ice cream headache.

Speaking of ice cream, there is no better time to indulge in a little Cornish cream ice cream than when you can have it hand scooped and served from one of the ubiquitous ice cream trucks that can be found near most local beaches. If you're feeling adventurous, you might try a special concoction such as that assembled at Falmouth's Swanpool Beach Cafe--Cornish cream ice cream topped with actual Cornish cream, topped with coconut flakes. It might take you a while to get used to ingesting all that fat in one go, so start small. If it's too much for you to handle, you can always feed it to a gull--they're never far away.

If you're feeling in the mood for a savory treat, you could grill some food instead. Trick number 5 for enjoying a Cornish summer is to try catching your own food by the seashore. If you like diving, you might be able to collect some scallops; or, you can arrive at the beach at low tide and find the scallops a bit closer to hand, along with razor clams. The rest of the time, you can catch a variety of tasty fish--most especially mackerel--with a fishing rod, or even just using a string with a few hooks attached. Along the seashore you can forage for plenty of edible accompaniments, including seaweed that you can use if you'd like to grill your fish en papillote; I'm told that this is particularly delicious when you stuff the fish with scavenged leeks/garlic/onions/mustard.

Alternatively, you can stop by the market on your way to the beach and bring along more traditional fare, such as burgers and sausages. Don't forget to pick up a disposable grill, which is the cooking implement of choice on most Cornish beaches:

It's easy to stuff yourself full of beach food, so trick number 6 is to bring along your dog. After eating, give yourself a bit of a rest period in order to start the digestive process, then speed the process up by taking your dog for a walk or romping with it along the shore.

If you don't have a dog, perhaps you can bring a child. They are always good for a little excitement. For instance, they always seem to be taking off their clothes and running around naked, so you will have the opportunity to burn a few calories while hunting for all the garments they've strewn along the shoreline.

Many of the best Cornish beaches can be difficult to get to, requiring harrowing drives down winding, hedge- and stone wall-lined country roads. You may have to park far away and then hike to the beach while toting all your gear. Thus, trick number 7 is to stay patient and mellow, and perhaps use a GPS system to help you find your way. You might also use one of Britain's many public footpaths, or even the Coastal Path, which will allow you to take in the beautiful scenery along the way.

The route will likely be well-marked, preventing you from becoming lost--but if you do get confused, there is probably a friendly local nearby to help offer some directions.

(Florian de Fal on his first Cornish outing.)

While you could do all this alone, it's more fun if you have some company, so trick number 8 is to involve as many friends as possible. Always try to invite at least one friend with a watercraft of some sort, just in case you want the option of enjoying the water while not actually getting wet.

The absolute most important thing to remember about a Cornish summer is that you never know when it's going to arrive or how long it's going to last. Today it was 25 degrees C (77 degrees F) and sunny, tomorrow it's supposed to be 18 degrees (64 degrees F) with thunderstorms. For all we know, this was the warmest day we're going to get all summer. So, if you're in Cornwall between March and October and see a decent weather forecast on the horizon, it is imperative that you remember trick number 9: Seize the day! Put away your work and go out and play, even if it's just for an hour--since it may be the best hour of the season, you have to take advantage of it while it lasts.