In 2015, Golden Tree Productions worked with a host of experts and volunteers to locate and uncover dozens of ‘lost’ Plen an Gwari (ampitheatre) sites across West Cornwall, whilst engaging local communities and raising awareness of this previously under-celebrated aspect of Cornish heritage.
Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the project started with preliminary research alongside Falmouth University students, volunteers and community groups to find sites and ‘unlock’ surviving medieval texts. Two well-known Plen an Gwaris exist at St Just and Perranporth, but our research found evidence of over forty further sites that have been built upon, ploughed over or disregarded by the local community who are unaware of their existence. They were discovered using data from the Historic Environment Record (HER) and National Archives, references from the works of Rod Lyon, Oliver Padel and Matthew Spriggs, field research and archeological surveys. We used this collated evidence to produce an online field guide with interactive Plen an Gwari map.
The project culminated in an array of happenings: a KS2 and KS3 educational programme in local schools, workshops with BA Theatre students at Falmouth University, and celebratory events at existing Plen an Gwari sites to recreate key aspects of the medieval experience.
Alongside these events, we performed an Arts Council funded play: Gogmagog. This was a new production that explored the way in which the Plen an Gwari space was used. Instead of ‘theatre in the round’ where the audience sits around the edge, the play’s format enabled the audience to be surrounded by the players with the action happening around and amongst them. The play toured Cornwall along with a Plen an Gwari outdoor exhibition that reached over 3,000 people.
Our final event was held at St Just Plen an Gwari, involving more than 350 pupils and nearly 200 staff. Students demonstrated the results of our school sessions to the wider audience, performing songs, play extracts in both Cornish and English, and choreographed dramatic scenes.
A major output of the project was a beautifully illustrated book, Plen An Gwari: The Playing Places of Cornwall by Will Coleman. The book explained how and why Plen an Gwari tradition flourished and died, what attending a spectacle would have been like, what the contemporary cultural lessons are for us today, and how we can locate our own local ‘lost’ site.
The first edition of the book has now sold out and a newly-tweaked second edition is due to be published in time for Kresen Kernow’s 2021 hosting of the original manuscripts on display.