Plen an Gwari
Thousands of spectators will have thronged through a wide circular arena but not to watch anything that resembled our 21st century notions of ‘theatre’. The Cornish plen an gwari form was an epic, immersive outdoor experience complete with special effects, aerobatics, elaborate costumes, performers on horseback, guns and pyrotechnics.
Hurling to Goal
Besides the staging of theatre, each plen an gwari was also used as a ‘playing place’ for sports such as Cornish wrestling and ‘hurling’. Thorough accounts of the popular Cornish sport of ‘hurling to goal’ by Richard Carew in 1602 suggest that this sport, played with a heavy, metal ‘silver ball’ is the earliest known example from anywhere in the world where the ball must be passed backwards.
Many people fondly recall the ‘Golden Era’ of Cornish rugby when, before and after each match, the streets, shops and pubs of Redruth would be full to bursting with black-and-gold clad supporters from every far-flung corner of Cornwall. The rowdiest and most vocal section of the rugby supporters always headed straight for the infamous ‘Hellfire Corner’. Some say that this corner of the Redruth pitch first got its name because it was right where the medieval “Hell’s Mouth” of the plen an gwari was sited!
Once every ten years more than 500,000 visitors descend on the small town of Oberammergau, Bavaria, for their globally renowned Passion Play. As well as Bavarian inspiration, Hellfire Kernow draws inspiration from Italian revivals of medieval heritage, Sienna’s famous horse race, Arezzo jousting and the brutal ‘football’ of Florence’s Calcio Storico. Meanwhile, just across the sea, the annual Breton pilgrimages of the Pardons remain a huge part of the cultural calendar for our Celtic cousins. With traditional costumes, processional music and imagery, these events engender huge local pride as well as pulling in vast crowds of spectators which boost the local economy.
Golden Tree Productions will be exploring the notion of Redruth having a plen an gwari, once again. This would be the first new medieval Cornish Amphitheatre to have been built for 500 years. It will become a community hub, a green space and a performance venue, with a rolling programme of cultural events exploiting this outdoor gathering space.
We’ll be ‘Setting the Spark’ for our plans in 2022 with a series of Hellfire Corner events, funded by Redruth Unlimited – a new cultural adventure for Redruth.
Working with staff and students at Redruth school and with members of Redruth Rugby Club we will ‘reconstruct’ Hurling to Goal, based on surviving accounts and evidence of the sport, through a series of experimental workshops. We will build four competent and enthusiastic young teams.
After exploring imagery and ideas from medieval manuscripts, four distinct Redruth ‘Hellfire Crews’ will be created: i) ‘Demons’, ii) ‘Angels’, iii) ‘Saints’ and iv) ‘Tormentors’. Each Crew will co-create colourful costumes, props and processional imagery for themselves, invent a ‘Haka’ and become the cheerleader fan club for one of the four hurling teams. Each crew will adopt a Crew Base i) ‘Hellfire Corner’ at Redruth Rugby Club, ii) the Butter Market, iii) St Rumon’s Chapel, iv) Kresen Kernow, and use that venue for preparations.
The first trial “Hellfire” event will be staged in May 2022. Over the course of a day, the four distinct ‘Hellfire Crews’ will ready themselves at their Crew Bases in the four corners of the town. The inaugural ‘Redruth Hurling Championships’ will be held at Redruth Rugby Club, with the costumed, colourful Crews each supporting their team with chants and ‘haka’-style encouragements. Afterwards, the glorious champions will be paraded around the ‘Plain an Gwarry trail’, visiting each of the Redruth Crew Bases as they go. The parade will finish close with a fire sculpture finale, inspired by fragments from the medieval scripts.