Getting Mortal in St Austell: Galatea in Cornwall

We are joining Emma Frankland and her crew of artists and players for the next few days.  Emma is spending this week and next week with two groups of artists to explore in more detail some of the themes and scenes of John Lyly’s Galatea, building on research and development workshops from last August.  The aim of these two research and development weeks is in large part to take the play outside, the ultimate aim for the production itself–and a huge thanks must go to Jerwood Foundation, whose funding has made these two weeks possible.  I joined them at the end of the first week in Gorran Haven, near St Austell, where Antonia Kemi Coker, Dylan Frankland, Kyla Goodey, Steve Jacobs, Ash Palmisciano, and Ellie Stamp have been exploring the mortal “world” of the play—its Neptune-worshipping society and its “festive” sacrifices, its  shipwrecked youngsters searching for work, its implicit histories and inhabitants.  They are joined by Myriddin Pharo and by musicians Vicky Abbott and Seamas Carey, who have been creating soundscapes for this seaside society.



Ellie’s astronomer

The group have spent the week staying a short walk up the hill from the sea in a remote barn-side location (big thanks to Kneehigh for the rent of their amazing barns!), working indoors and outdoors to get closer to Galatea‘s evocation of the sea air and the shore. Accordi[o]ngly, the sounds of Seamas’s noteless accordion, breathing in and out like the sound of the sea breeze, worked as a perfect underscore for some of the scenes of shipwreck and jobsearching that characterise part of the play’s plot.


The group hear Seamas’s and Vicky’s compositions…

I joined yesterday towards the end of what had clearly been an immensely productive week.


Kyla and Dylan learning astronomy


Kyla’s astronomer holds court.

I watched the group rework scenes they had explored previously, in particular moments in which Rafe is searching for work among a cast of curious characters.  Possibly one of the earliest black characters in Elizabethan commercial drama, the alchemist’s boy Peter (Antonia Coker), convinces Ash Palmisciano’s Rafe to take up an apprenticeship with Steve Jacobs’s hilariously distracted Alchemist.


Over the other side of the barn, Dylan Frankland’s Rafe was spellbound by Ellie Stamp’s stargazing astronomer, who promised rich knowledge of all kinds, and the whole scene was beautifully backlit by the imposing presence of the moon.


Later, we took part in a ritual sacrifice.  Or rather, we “enacted” the belief at the heart of Galatea’s and Phyllida’s home town… At the centre of the play (and the prompt for most of its action) is the custom of its mortal townsfolk; in order to appease the wrath of Neptune, they are forced to consent to a very particular ritual:

TITYRUS [Galatea’s father]: The condition was this: that at every five years’ day, the fairest and chastest virgin in all the country should be brought unto this tree, and here being bound (whom neither parentage shall excuse for honour, nor virtue for integrity) is left for a peace-offering unto Neptune. (1.1.46-50)

Hebe tells us in her lengthy and moving speech, as she readies herself for death, that the sacrificial victim awaits the arrival of a monster: “Come, Agar, thou unsatiable monster of maidens’ blood and devourer of beauty’s bowels [. . .] Come, Agar, thou horrible monster; and farewell world, thou viler monster.” (5.2.50-58).

The group had earlier in the day explored the meanings and shape of such a ritual by processing down to the beach and using the seashore as a stage for this five-yearly village “fete.”


A ritual at the beach…


Hebe prepares for her fate

IMG_5626.jpgIn the evening, this process took on a different form.  Under the “augurship” (in the language of Galatea) or the leadership of Antonia, we gathered in the lower barn and collectively devised a ceremony in near silence: seasalt sprinkled into a jug of water, lights down, the saltwater on foreheads, lighting individual candles.  Antonia commanded the room and then led us outside slowly, everyone’s hand on the back of the person in front, into the dark and towards the low-burning fire.  Reflecting back on this, several of the group pointed out how eerie the act was, but also how ordinary: all red fleeces and wellies, people in their everyday clothes, going about their sacrifice.  Ash pointed out it had the quality of certain low-key British horror films.


IMG_5608The ritual continued around the fire, with impromptu dance moves in sync followed by the blowing out of candles.  Antonia took her time, quietly, and set up Ellie–our Hebe–by the tree, ready for sacrifice.  She drew the last lighted candle along her arms and legs and cast her to her fate.  After we had been told quite certainly to move off, Ellie spoke Hebe’s long speech about the struggles and unfairness of this mortal life.  The lines resonated in the context of current issues of power and gender, and for many of us exploring the play’s extraordinary depth and elasticity in these R&D weeks they speak to Galatea’s queer and feminist values: “Art thou the sacrifice to appease Neptune and satisfy the custom, the bloody custom, ordained for the safety of thy country? Ay, Hebe, poor Hebe, men will have it so, whose forces command our weak natures” (5.2.10-14).

We could observe from a distance (and Ellie pointed out it was difficult to see anybody out there…).  It was a haunting moment.  The break in tension once it was clear that the “monster is not come” left a sense of melancholy and foreboding that is integral to the narrative of the play itself but also carried over into the silent finishing of this “act” (which continued solemnly unbroken until we’d all coalesced in the kitchen).  It’s fascinating, perhaps even a little disturbing, to recognise in such situations what powerful collective action can occur in social groups through the “playing” of roles or expectations.

Emma has been conflating the different elements of this ritual world, using exposition from the beginning of the play and this failed sacrifice from the final act, something that paid off in creating a holistic sense of this society.  From the beginning of this evening sacrifice, we were told to inhabit our character–our relationship to the ritual event.  Imagining myself as an interloper or immigrant (or “exchange student”), I (quite understandably, I think) felt alarmingly as though I had chosen the wrong “village” in which to lay my hat down, and while swept along with the action, I also felt as though there was a certain pre-accepted choreography carrying things along.  In fact, I learned afterwards, it was all entirely impromptu…

Nature had, I’m told, played a big part in forming and informing things all week.  On the Thursday, Steve’s eccentric Alchemist made a long entrance as he busied himself foraging for useful bits and pieces.  As he rootled in the bushes by an upper barn building, out flew a bird towards us and over the fire.  In one afternoon alone, owls have hooted and intruded, the moon colluded, and molluscs unexpectedly protruded…

Indeed, to round off the day, we were treated to a spectacular and beautiful shipwreck-in-miniature.  Steve Jacobs, in full mariner’s attire (and sat by the table like a formal but softly-spoken Neptune), placed several rocks and a shell into a washing-up-bowl full of water.  Steve set up the scene like a playful child, and cast a “bark”–a boat, but quite literally a piece of bark–onto the sea on its maiden voyage.  The scene began to swell, and the waves rise, as Steve shook the washing-up-bowl.  Ash Palmisciano had written lines imagining the experience of being at sea and facing an inevitable shipwreck–lines written on the beach earlier that day–and as we heard these lyrics, we saw the bark tossed and turned every which way.   Seamas’s accordion played a lively concerto, rising and falling, and finishing cleanly.



As the seas calmed, Steve pulled out the large conch shell.  Out of one of its cracks, quite by accident and wholly by surprise, emerged a tiny snail.  “Oh, here’s Rafe…”  He was followed by three more snails (Robin, Dick, the Mariner?), who slowly, slowly, made their way onto the table, with Seamas’s accordion inhaling and exhaling a sea breeze.  Wow.


The snails made their way safely back to a leafy suburb of the garden.  Nature, it turns out (unsurprisingly), can upstage us all. These tiny, fragile snails had undergone exactly the toing and froing, the violent jangling of rocks, described in Ash’s “voiceover” and related by the shipwrecked crew in the play.  They had, too, come out unscathed to crawl tentatively onto land.  We reeled from the poignancy and delicacy of this extraordinary moment.

“I fear the sea no more than a dish of water. Why, fools, it is but a liquid element.  Farewell.”


Callan Davies

3 thoughts on “Getting Mortal in St Austell: Galatea in Cornwall

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