Monday 16 April 2012
Titanic at the Minack Theatre
Last week I achieved a lifetime's ambition and finally saw a full-scale production at the Minack Theatre.
The Minack is that most English of things which rooted and blossomed in the magical kingdom of Cornwall; a private obsession which chimed with others and called them to itself. Miss Rowena Cade, an amateur producer, offered the use of her garden to the local players for a production of The Tempest. They had done well with A Midsummer Night's dream in a nearby meadow. The garden of Minack House, however, did not readily offer somewhere to seat the audience. Cade looked in to what was then a gully above a rock used by fishermen and wondered if a stage could be built down there, where the sides suggested a natural amphitheatre. Where better to place Prospero's island but on a rock jutting out over the Atlantic Ocean?
Miss Cade and her gardener set about sculpting the theatre and in 1932 The Tempest was performed - by moonlight. The Times noted the event and a dream became flesh.
That dream was nearly wrecked by WWII, but Cade, who had by now lived through two wars, set about re-building the theatre. She did not know the meaning of "Give up" but the phrase "The Show Must Go On" was written on her heart and, in most cases, her own wallet.
The theatre is open air - although Cade had some ideas late on for adding bad- weather covers - and that means that you take your chances. All tickets come with a warning to wear suitable clothes and that umbrellas are not to be put up in the auditorium as it intereferes with the view. In extreme weather they might cancel but normal rain is ignored.
On Monday 9 April the pleasant Cornish spring weather scuttled off to be replaced with bluster and sudden showers of extra-wet rain. Stopping to pick up a picnic, the lady in the bakery said her friend was a producer and he had called her to say the Minack was experiencing winds sweeping the drizzle down on to the upper terraces, where by coincidence I had a seat to see "Titanic - the musical". I bobbed over to the sailing shop and explained the situation to the lady behind the counter. She sold me a showeproof suit and a Frosty Fox snood in a piratical stripe to keep my hair out of my eyes.
Sitting on a rolled-up mat on the terrace, in my survival suit and wrapped up in a waterproof-blanket, I settled down to watch the matinee performance of a lifetime and got it buckets.
The musical has been performed frequently around the world since its slow start in 1997. This production was by the local Atlantic Theatre Company. Using an amateur cast emphasises the ordinary lives of many who died rather than the extraordinary lives of passengers such as the campaigning editor and journalist W T Stead, who perished on the night he might have written his greatest scoop.
An ingenious stripped-down set had been developed to create the bridge of the doomed ship and to focus on the poignant performances. History records that the night of the disaster was unusually calm; the water was oily flat as the air, although freezing, was static.
The Atlantic was not having this. This was its big chance to be seen in daylight instead of gleaming in the velvet darkness, and it wanted to be in the performance so it gathered itself in to swollen rollers and flung spray up over the Minack rock below the stage. The wind hummed loudly over the orchestra, tugging at our hoods and bringing us a taste of salt.
At the interval the rain started, through which gulls plunged in to the waves, fishing as the incoming tide brought a shoal close to the Minack rock and within reach. The gulls circle lazily until they see where dinner is, then fold their wings and dive in to the water with a tiny ring of white to mark where they vanish, clean as an arrow.
In the second half the weather threw itself at the performers who continued, cold, soaking wet, the wind plastering their clothes to their bodies. This was not historically accurate but it conveyed a sense of impending shipwreck; the sea and the sky produced spectacular special effects but at the cost to the cast of them being only a little warmer than they would have been had they been dunked in the sea that fateful night.
It has been dismissed as grief-porn, this picking over of a century-old civil disaster but that is to miss what even Goebbels - who later commissioned a film about it - realized. The disaster was capable of being read several ways and has been over the century. Jared Poley tells us that in 1912 the dominant theme was that of nature triumphing over man but by the 1940s Goebbels used it to amplify what was true; much British self-confidence had gone down with the ship.