The Plain-an-Gwarry or ‘playing place’ which stands at the heart of St. Just is one of the few surviving examples of a medieval open air theatre in Cornwall and is Scheduled Monument DCO1247 (Cornwall 26), and lies within the St. Just Conservation Area. The structure was possibly originally a ’round’ or enclosed farming settlement which would have been constructed during the Iron Age and would have probably continued in use during the Romano-British period. During the medieval period it was converted into an open air theatre for the showing of religious mystery plays – the ‘Cornish Cycle’ known as the Ordinalia, these having been written at Glasney Abbey in Penryn.
The cycle of three plays (Origo Mundi – The Creation of the World; The Passion; The Resurrection), were written between 1350-1400 and performed by the local community of St. Just during the late Middle Ages. It is likely that performances gradually died out over the next 200 years or so; in 1549 The Book of Common Prayer deemed it illegal to worship in any other language than English, and by the mid-1700s all theatre was banned.
Each ‘playing place’ (plen) had its own particular story unique to that place, St. Just’s being ‘The Story of the Rood’: the three pips of the apple that Adam ate planted to form three saplings that grew and eventually become the wood that was used for the crucifixion cross.
The original Plain-an-Gwarry (its Cornish name is Plen an Gwari, and a middle spelling is Plen an Gwary as displayed on the Plain itself) had an external ditch, though this seems to have been infilled with urban waste over the years. Originally, it seems to have had terraced seating around its inner periphery (though these have been landscaped away) and a tunnel leading in from the exterior (the Devil’s Spoon) which allowed the figure of Satan to appear in the middle of the stage area at the centre of the Plain. The modification of the original form of the Plain-an-Gwarry seems to have taken place through the 19th century as its original religious importance became forgotten. The bank was considerably heightened by the addition of late C19 and early C20 urban rubbish, and the level of the inside has been raised with china clay waste to help combat flooding. The site became increasingly used for public events and celebrations including stone drilling competitions undertaken by local miners. It is likely that the rubble stone revetting around its exterior was added during this period (this being shown in early postcards and views of the town).
Returning to its origins as an open air theatre
Interest in open-air theatre revived in Cornwall early in the 20th century, notably the Minack Theatre, and since the 1970s outdoor performance been one of the distinctive successes of the Cornish theatre scene. This tradition encouraged a relatively small artist-led group to stage large-scale English language re-enactments of the Ordinalia cycle between 2000 and 2004 in the space for which they were originally written – the Plen an Gwary in St. Just. The first production in 2000 of The Creation of the World was a great success and led to the completion of the cycle with The Passion in 2001 and The Resurrection in 2002, with a combined version of all three plays, The Full Cycle, being produced in 2004.
The original stage plan was followed, consisting of eight stages set around the 40 metre diameter ‘Plen’, and a central stage for large set pieces e.g. Noahs Ark, Adam & Eve, and The Crucifixion. The productions involved over 250 local people as makers, actors, musicians, choir members and crew, supported by a core group of paid local professionals as writer, director, production manager, set designer, costume designer & musical director/composer. As a legacy, the adjacent dilapidated band hut was purchased by the St Just and District Trust, constructing a new ‘backstage’ facility for changing rooms and props and costume storage to support future productions in the Plen an Gwary. The Knut (theknutstjust.com) opened in 2014 named after Dominic Knutton the director of the Ordinalia plays 2000-2004.
Plans are now underway to stage the full cycle of the Ordinalia in the Plain and Gwarry again, in a major community theatre project, once funding can be secured; this project has the support of the Town Council.
More information about the Ordinalia can be found at the St. Just Ordinalia website: www.stjustordinalia.com
Background information about St. Just and District (along with the Ordinalia) is also available at the St. Just and District Trust website: stjustanddistricttrust.btck.co.uk
Using the Plain an Gwarry today
Today, the Plain-an-Gwarry is owned and managed by St. Just Town Council and is the focal point of the town centre and much valued by the local community. It continues to be used by local groups and organisations, including taking centre stage in the annual Lafrowda Day celebrations in July. The Plain can be hired for public events on application to the Town Council. Applications MUST be made no later than four weeks before the event. Failure to meet this deadline may result in the event not taking place.
Copies of the relevant form can be downloaded here: