In the fourth part of an occasional series, publications which may be of interest to fellow Social, Historical and Cultural Geographers of this particular area of research are reviewed.
‘PLEN AN GWARI – The Playing Places of Cornwall’ by Will Coleman: 2015: Golden Tree Productions: St. Buryan
The academic study of Cornish Culture and Identity is a field which started to receive more attention with the restoration of the Cornish Studies books, with Philip Payton instrumental in this in the early 1990s. However, a year into my own academic research in the area, it still shocks me just what an under-researched field this is. After all, Cornwall is a unique territory, with a unique language and culture and deserves major academic attention paid to it.
Someone who is stepping into this breach is Will Coleman of Golden Tree Productions, a community interest company who develop and deliver cultural projects that uncover and celebrate Cornwall’s distinctiveness and diversity. They make a point of engaging with audiences that are under-engaged in culture and heritage, particularly those that are disadvantaged. Coleman describes himself in the Introduction as a “theatre-maker and performer” but also a teacher.
This painstaking research, written in brilliantly accessible language, makes the book appeal to all audiences.The importance of what this work reveals is huge. As Professor Matthew Spriggs of the Australian National University remarks in the Preface: “Much interest has been generated by archaeological investigations of the Globe and Rose Theatres in London, neither of which is likely to be anywhere near as old as some of our identified Plen an gwari.” (My italics). Let us not be mistaken here, these Plen an Gwari which staged medieval mystery plays in the Cornish language are of World Heritage importance – this is not just Cornish or British history – but World history, and Coleman, building on earlier work by the likes of former Grand Bard Rod Lyon, deserves massive credit for bringing this back to the forefront of historical, cultural and geographical attention.
Coleman starts by outlining the two clearly evident Plenys an gwari sites today at St. Just and Perran, before launching into one of the most important pieces of his research – the Ordinalia playscript which he went to examine at Oxford’s Bodleian Library which could be from 1375 which would make it the earliest surviving full-length play script in Britain. It was possibly written at Glasney College, Penryn, and definitely written in the Cornish language. It contains what appear to be annotated stage directions in the margin! Coleman also outlines two further playscripts, Beunans Meryasek and Bewnans Ka, the latter of which was uncovered only in 2000.
The book contains many superb illustrations, one of which is Brian Hoskin’s wonderful map of the Plenys an Gwari sites in Cornwall below:
Coleman identifies the reason for the Plen an Gwari sites – the popularity of religions plays become such that they needed to be performed outside of churches, and as Cornwall did not possess town squares the need arose for sites on which to perform. He also discusses how Gwari Meur were used to examine Cornwall’s treatment by the English, and how the fact that these plays were performed in Cornish aided the content going undetected by the men from across the Tamar!
With the book drawing to its conclusion, Coleman examines the staging at a Plen an Gwari, with the fact that the large circular area in the middle was not a ‘stage’, but the place where the audience gathered, with the ‘action’ taking place via different characters standing on platforms around the outside of the Plen an Gwari, with a major piece of action alerting the audience to the fact that they needed to shift their attention from one platform to another.
This is an outstanding piece of work, which, as Coleman himself admits will be ongoing. I just hope that it goes a long way to making people realise, not just the vital importance of these Plenys an Gwari in developing what we know now as theatre, but the role that Cornwall, as a land of separate identity, played in it all too.