The Ordinalia at St Just 2021 – Plen an Gwari hosts Britain’s Oldest Plays

This autumn something really rather special is happening down west. A trilogy of six hundred year old Cornish ‘Mystery Plays’, known as The Ordinalia, will be performed in St Just in Penwith. These three powerful, biblical plays are the oldest surviving plays in Britain and will appropriately be performed in arguably the country’s oldest working theatre space – Plen an Gwari.

The performance is part of a two week celebration of Cornish history and culture being held in St Just, which is set to also include workshops in the Cornish language, Cornish singing, Cornish dancing and Cornish wrestling. It is an event not to be missed!

Credit: Steve Tanner/St Just Ordinalia

The Ordinalia

The Ordinalia is considered unique to Cornwall and a very special part of our heritage. It was originally performed to spread Christian ideas and messages to the local population as well as entertain, of course!

These 14th century ‘mystery plays’ (as opposed to the ‘miracle plays’ which are about the saints) were likely written by the clerics of the ancient Glasney College in Penryn. Written in medieval Cornish, with Latin stage directions, The Ordinalia formed the basis of much of our understanding of the Cornish language. But don’t let its great age put you off, it is still incredibly relevant and accessible to today’s audiences because ultimately, like the Bible itself, it speaks to the universal human experience – and most importantly it was written to divert and enthral the often, in those days, illiterate crowd.

Some of the original text.
Public Domain,

In fact, from what I understand, the actors themselves were often illiterate too and had to rely on a prompt to feed them their lines, which could be the origin of the name, The Ordinalia.

“Ordinalia is the plural of Latin ordinale, meaning ‘prompt’ or ‘service book’. The language of the plays is Middle Cornish, with different metrical forms used throughout. French, English, and Latin are also incorporated. The place-names of the plays, which combine a biblical landscape with a Cornish one, indicate probable authorship at Glasney College.”

Alan M. Kent, 2015

The three plays – The Creation of the World (Origo Mundi); The Passion (Passio Domini), and The Resurrection (Resurrexio Domini), collectively cover the whole scope of the Bible stories from the beginning of the world to Doomsday. This is exciting, fire and brimstone stuff, with lots of action and drama.

Credit: Steve Tanner/St Just Ordinalia

When the trilogy was performed by Bristol University at St Piran’s Round in 1969 it was believed to be the first production of The Ordinalia for 300 years. Since then St Just has become its unofficial home, with the community preforming the trilogy in 2000-2004. And now again in 2021 this production will use the original 600 year old stage directions and scripts to unforgettable effect.

“A powerful, divine and otherworldly experience.”

  • ordinalia

Plen an Gwari

“We are incredibly passionate about resurrecting the Ordinalia trilogy in 2021 in the homeland of the medieval plays. Cornwall is renowned for its outdoor theatre spectacles and people come from all over the world to engage with Cornish culture in the fresh air and beauty of the landscape surrounding us. This will be no different.”

Ordinalia Artistic Director, Jason Squibb

Known as ‘playing places’ or ’rounds’, Cornwall once had many of these man-made outdoor amphitheatres. They are known to have been used to host all kinds of sporting and public events as well as being meeting and market places. Plen an Gwari (sometimes Gwarry) is one of the last of these circular performance areas remaining in Cornwall, another called St Piran’s or Perran Round, can be found near Perranporth.

Plen an Gwari in the 1980s

It has been suggested that St Just’s playing place could date back to the Iron Age, when the protective enclosure would have contained a farming settlement. And we know that the Plen an Gwari has been used for performances, such as The Ordinalia, from the medieval period onwards. The space once had terraced seating and an outside ditch which has since been filled in. In 1878 Plen an Gwari underwent repairs to its outer ring, with stone to sure up the walls being brought from Boscean.

To this day this space is at the heart of life in St Just in Penwith, and with shows such as this one on the calendar it is not hard to imagine that special status continuing for many generations to come.

A True Spectacle

I always knew that Cornwall had a long tradition of open air theatre, having enjoyed many performances by Kneehigh, Wildworks and alike in the 1990s myself, but I never appreciated quite how long we have been doing this! I, of course, haven’t been able to watch this show yet, but having read about it, spoken with those organising it and watching their progress on social media, I am VERY excited to see what I believe will be a true spectacle! Something really unique.

Credit: Steve Tanner/St Just Ordinalia

The other aspect that I think is important to take into consideration, especially for Cornish people, is that these plays are so much more than a staged performance – they are a direct link to our unique heritage, to our Cornish culture and language. And all presented in a fun and entertaining way – who could ask for more!?

Find out how to get involved or buy tickets below.

Getting Tickets or Getting involved

For those of you who fancy it there are plenty of opportunities to get involved with this incredible event, whether you’d like to take flight as an angel or want to be a dastardly devil, if you can sing or play an instrument, are handy with a paint brush or just want to help guide people to their seats. There are around 150 voluntary positions available, all training is given, just bring your enthusiasm – LEARN MORE.

Credit: A. Tweedy /St Just Ordinalia

The performances will be held between the 4th and 18th September. All three plays will be preformed over the course of one week and then repeated in the second week. Tickets are set to be released on the website below around the week commencing 26th April, so don’t miss out!

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I have not been paid for this review.

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4 thoughts on “The Ordinalia at St Just 2021 – Plen an Gwari hosts Britain’s Oldest Plays

  1. Still a week of plays to go. You really should go and see them, this weeks performances have been magical, a truly special experience.

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