In the CREW credits for the play at St. Dogmaels Abbey, the following two people are acknowledged for SET;
Robert Fitzmartin and Henry VIII
The second name, made me chuckle. When Henry abolished the monasteries, this abbey, along with the others got sacked and probably trashed. Over the next few hundred years, what was left of the site was plundered for stone to build other local structures. What we’re left with today is something that, with the right vision and imagination, forms a superbly adaptable, unique open air performance space.
Arguably, you’d struggle to design any better. In front of the grassed cloisters courtyard where the audience are seated in what would have been the beating heart of the working abbey, a graveled main stage area of about 6m x 30m sits around 1m above the audience ground, with a low wall running right at the front for about half it’s length. This space is serviced by four main entrance points, one of which is through a huge, visible grass area behind the main stage, which slopes up and away, to a back hedge and wall. These two areas are separated by a handy trench for hiding (as is the case this year) prop workings, and a low wall, which acts as ‘the wings’ for awaiting actors. Another stone / gravel platform – added in the 16th century behind the back of the main stage-right is the highest point, probably 3 – 4m higher than audience level.
The former refectory makes up what is now the musicians room and the rest of the ‘set’ is punctuated with parts of former structures, which, in the plays are used as everything from hidey holes, platforms, sentry posts to places to hide props, pyros, lights and cables.
Undoubtedly, this is one of the things that makes the annual Abbey Shakespeare Players production here, so special. Granted, there’s some very fine acting going on as well, but the sky is the limit with the potential of the stage. Each year a new idea is often tried out that utilises a new usage to do with the team’s dear old friend – the Abbey ruins.
I spent a couple of hours in the Abbey this morning where I largely had the whole thing, to myself. It must have been an impressive building 800 years ago when it was first built. The biggest building in the area undoubtedly, it would have been an awe inspiring sight for the locals, enforcing the power of the Monks it supported. Everyone involved with the play take it it turns to do a shift or few of “Abbey Watch”. The production brings quite a lot of kit to town – scaffold, lights, power distribution and the like. More so for the safety of visiting tourists than equipment security, (It’s a popular tourist attraction in the area) someone from the cast or crew keep an eye on it all round the clock.
There’s a cracking spot right at the top of the Abbey, right at the back of the stage that I particularly love, as you can see the whole of the grounds. From there you can see the whole shape of the former abbey – at least the footprint of what it was and the remaining vertical structures, of which 3 impressive arched windows remain as testament to the former height and size of the place. I also like that spot, because you can see down to the road and the mill pond and coach house. It’s a great spot for watching the slow tick tock of St. Dogmaels life.