Maynardville Open-air Theatre

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Maynardville Open-air Theatre is a performance venue situated in Maynardville park[1] in Wynberg, Cape Town, and has long been devoted theatrical work, including ballet and musical performances, but specifically renowned for the annual productions of Shakespeare.

Also referred to simply as Maynardville.

The Maynardville Park

The piece of land now known as Maynardville Park was originally government ground under the Dutch East India Company[2] and after 1795 the British authorities. In 1807 part of the ground became the property of a Lieut. Louis Ellert, who built a cottage named Rosendal there and in 1810, his brother-in-law Lieut. Ernst Egger bought the adjacent piece. The two sections of land became eventually one farm and the property of the widow Ellert, who had financed her purchase with a bond from the Cape Town businessman James Mortimer Maynard.

In 1836 Maynard became the owner of Rosendal when the widow Ellert became insolvent and he then bought the rest to accommodate his new home, which he called Maynard's Villa. He lived there from 1836 until his death in 1874.

On Maynard's death the estate went to his nephew, William Mortimer Maynard Farmer, an established business man. Farmer's daughter Enid had married a John Bernard and they lived in the villa for the rest of their lives, Enid Bernard dying in 1949. Maynardville was immediately sold to the Cape Town City Council, to be preserved as a public park. The historic but dilapidated homestead was demolished by the municipal authorities in 1954. The municipality declared the lands an open public park, with the former swimming pool becoming a pond, and the archery lawn later used to construct the Maynardville Open-Air Theatre.

Today Maynardville Park is managed by the Maynardville Park Action Committee, a public-private partnership between the City of Cape Town and the Wynberg community. It also hosts carnivals, fairs, markets, motor shows, wedding receptions, and religious gatherings.

For more on the park and its history, see the Maynardville Park website[3] and the Wikipedia entry on the Maynardville theatre[4]

The Maynardville Open-air Theatre

The Maynardville Open-air Theatre is a theatre venue, situated within the grounds of Maynarville Park in Wynberg, Cape Town, devoted to productions of Shakespeare and ballet performances. It is most often referred to simply as Maynardville.

The spectacular green wooded park has a repution as one of the best-loved outdoor theatre venues in the Cape Region. It offers its patrons both a 500m2 wooded park for pre-show picnics and drinks, as well as a unique wooded 720-seater theatre setting.

Perhaps best known for the annual Shakespeare-in-the-Park (an emphasis encouraged by most publications about the theatre, including the City of Cape Town's website), the tradition of theatrical performances in the Maynardville Park actually began somewhat earlier, with a number of ballet performances that were done there in 1950-1954 while the old manor house was still standing. The first Shakespeare was only done in 1956 and would become an annual tradition. For a number of years (1958-1974) ballet and Shakespeare were both offered most years, after which only plays were done till 2002, when ballet once more became part of the annual Maynardville scene. (See list of performances below)

Over the last 65 years the theatre and dance performances have attracted an average attendance of 20 000 patrons per year, with a strong focus on the schools in the Western Cape. From the very outset there were special concessions for block bookings of school children. Often the play chosen was one of the exam set works. The Shakespeare performances for example see up to 8000 scholars (grade 9 to 12) annually, with many coming from as far afield as Heidelberg.

In a period when it was not an easy matter, the cast and audiences at Maynardville were always multi racial. Many people who are now leading lights in SA theatre started out there, or enhanced their careers by performing in those early productions. Among them have been Roy Sargeant, Ralph Lawson, Michael McGovern, John Whiteley and Lyn Hooker, to name but a few. The productions have also lured many overseas actors and directors to Maynardville, some of whom (e.g. Michael Atkinson and Keith Grenville), eventually settled in the country and have enriched the South African theatre ever since.

See also the entries on Open-air theatre and Shakespeare-in-the-Park

The History of the Venue

There is a wide-held belief that the Maynardville theatre was founded in 1955, and first used in 1956, as the brainchild of the two professional actresses Cecilia Sonnenberg and René Ahrenson, who would become the tireless administrators and public faces of the theatre for most of the early years, their energy and drive making it an internationally recognized venue for Shakespearean performance. However, the first use of the park as a general performance space actually predates the involvement of the actresses by six years, as Sheila Chisholm (2016) has shown.

The idea of creating a dedicated performance venue in a park in Cape Town was apparently first suggested by Mrs Margaret Molteno, a member of the Athlone Committee for Nursery School Education, a fundraising institution for charitable causes on the Cape Flats, after a visit to the Regents Park Open Air Theatre in London during 1948. So when the Maynardville Villa grounds were declared a park "open to all" in 1949, it seemed an ideal venue to establish such a theatre for Cape Town. A committee was established to look into the matter, chaired by Mrs Molteno with Lorna Thompson, Dulcie Cooper, Jean Bernadt, Margaret McKenzie and Ann Harris as members. The committee approached the Mayor of Cape Town, councilor Abe Bloomberg, with their idea and received his blessing to the use of the park without charge. (No doubt the fact that he was the father of the young impresario/director David Bloomberg and the husband of Miriam Bloomberg, a former ballerina, helped their cause.)

The idea was to raise money for the Pre-Primary Nursery College and to this end the committee now approached Dulcie Howes, then principal of UCT Ballet School, and the Cape Town Municipal Orchestra and Dr Erik Chisholm[5] (conductor, composer, as well as Dean and Director of the College of Music) to assist by mounting a ballet production in the park. Both agreed to contribute their services without charge.

The venue needed work to prepare it, so a team of gardeners and the ladies from the committee themselves cleared the park and erected a stage. The first theatre was situated by the pond, close by the old manor house, which could then serve as dressing rooms. Material for the construction was donated by various firms and plants came from the forestry department.

Ballet in the park

The theatre was inaugurated on the 1st December of 1950 with a performance of the ballet, Les Sylphides by the UCT Ballet Company[6], produced by Cecily Robinson (after Fokine), followed by Dulcie Howes’s St Valentine’s Night and Les Diversions. They were performed for three nights.

The ballet performances were an immediate and immense success, drawing in people of all backgrounds from throughout Cape Town. As the beginnings of an ongoing annual project, those early performances helped to fund the Athlone Training College (established under the auspices of Barkly Training College for Nursery Education) in February 1952, among other projects.

The ballet would continue with only a few breaks (see list of productions below) till 1974, falling under the auspices of the CAPAB Ballet Company, led by Dulcie Howes, from 1963 onwards.

After an inexplicable break of 27 years, the ballet tradition in the park was once again resumed under Cape Town City Ballet in 2002, becoming a regular feature again at the Maynardville Open-air Theatre, running in tandem with the Shakespeare productions.

Shakespeare in the Park

In 1955 there was a break in the ballet performances, so Mrs Molteno, then Chairlady of the Athlone Committee, approached Cecilia Sonnenberg and René Ahrenson at their Spotlight Theatre in Cape Town and, having shown them around the rudimentary theatre and the Maynardville grounds, invited them to undertake productions of Shakespeare in the park, for the purpose of "keeping our open-air Theatre alive". Although they initially politely declined the invitation, they later changed their minds and agreed to take on the project the following year.

The City Council had razed the dilapidated old Maynard Villa in 1954, so René and Cecilia - who had contacts in the Cape Town City Council through her husband - persuaded the council to create a new stage and auditorium in the park, to enable them to mount a production of The Taming of the Shrew. By a happy coincidence they had met the celebrated English stage and film actor Leslie French in England, when Cecilia worked with him in Regent's Park open air theatre, and persuaded him to come to Cape Town to direct and act in the play. Just before he was due to board the mail-boat for Cape Town, Leslie received a telegram from Cecilia and René telling him not to come because (for a second time) they had "cold feet". Leslie's response was: "Buy hot water bottles, I'm coming out".

The Taming of the Shrew opened in 1956 and ran to packed houses for a month, setting a precedent for others to follow. After those first performances the stage was altered and enlarged, to attain its current layout. In February 1958, the theatre was officially declared a permanent institution, by decision of the City Council (Robinson, 2005: p. 22).

The tenth anniversary of the open air theatre was celebrated in 1964with three Leslie French productions: A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Taming of the Shrew and Hamlet.

The Shakespeare play in the park thus became an annual event taking place every January-February, managed and facilitated by Sonnenberg and Ahrenson. From the very outset there were special concessions and block bookings for school children. Often the play chosen was one of the examination set works, ensuring large attendance numbers. Furthermore, in a period when it was not an easy matter, the cast and audiences were always multi racial.

CAPAB and Maynardville

In 1975 Cecilia Sonnenberg and René Ahrenson signed an agreement with CAPAB to jointly manage the Maynardville theatre for the next five years. In 1980, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Maynardville Shakespeare, they retired from the management of Maynardville, and left it to the CAPAB Drama department who would keep the flame alive, bringing in guest actors and with the core company mounted a further 18 productions.

The Maynardville Theatre Trust

In the period of transformation occasioned by the new polical dispensation, one of the changes was the replacement of CAPAB with a new structure, now called Artscape, serving as a facilitating body and management of the Artscape Theatre (formerly the Nico Malan Theatre). By the mid nineties the Drama Department had been closed down as part of the process, but there was still a commitment to ensuring the continuation of the Shakespeare-in-the-Park productions. To this end the Maynardville Theatre Trust was established, with Cecilia Sonnenberg as patron, to give guidance and strategic support for the Maynardville presentations.

Today the Maynardville Theatre Trust, together with Artscape, continues to carry the banner of Classical Theatre and Dance at the Maynardville Open-air Theatre.

The Productions

Here follows a chronology of Maynardville performances. The list for the period 1950 to 2015 has been compiled by Sheila Chisholm and is reproduced here with her kind permissiom. For information on each individual production (where available), click on the title of the play to go to the entry on the work.

The list

1950 Les Sylphides, St Valentine's Night, Les Diversions (ballet)

1951 Les Sylphides, St Valentine's Night, Amor Eterno (ballet)

1952 Le Lac de Cygnes (2nd Act), Giselle (ballet)

1954 Don Quixote (pas de deux), Carnaval (ballet)

1956 The Taming of the Shrew (play)

1957 A Midsummer Night's Dream (play)

1958 As You Like It (play)

1958 The Firebird, Les Patineurs, Beauty and the Beast (ballet)

1959 The Winter's Tale (play)

1960 The Tempest (play)

1961 The Nutcracker, Blood Wedding (ballet)

1961 Twelfth Night (play)

1962 Much Ado About Nothing (play)

1962 The Sleeping Beauty (ballet)

1963 Petrushka (ballet)

1963 The Merchant of Venice (play)

1964 A Midsummer Night's Dream (play)

1964 Hamlet (play)

1965 Giselle (ballet)

1965 The Taming of the Shrew (play)

1966 King Lear (play)

1967 Le Tricorne, The Lady and the Fool (ballet)

1967 Macbeth (play)

1968 Richard II (play)

1968 Swan Lake (ballet)

1969 Les Deux Pigeons (ballet)

1969 The Merry Wives of Windsor (play)

1970 Othello (play)

1971 Coppélia Suite, A Midsummer Night's Dream (ballet)

1971 The Winter's Tale (play)

1972 Anthony and Cleopatra (play)

1972 Sylvia (Act 3), Verklärte Nacht, Peter and the Wolf (ballet)

1973 Giselle (ballet)

1973 The Tempest (play)

1974 Flower Festival in Genzano, The Firebird (ballet)

1974 Umabatha (play)

1975 Hamlet (play)

1976 Julius Caesar (play)

1977 Much Ado about Nothing (play)

1978 Twelfth Night (play)

1979 The Merchant of Venice (play)

1980 Romeo and Juliet (play)

1981 A Midsummer Night's Dream (play)

1982 Othello (play)

1983 The Tempest (play)

1984 The Taming of the Shrew (play)

1985 As You Like It (play)

1987 The Comedy of Errors (play)

1987 Measure for Measure (play)

1988 Romeo and Juliet (play)

1989 Twelfth Night (play)

1990 Much Ado about Nothing (play)

1991 Love's Labour's Lost (play)

1992 The Merchant of Venice (play)

1993 Two Gentlemen of Verona (play)

1994 The Tempest (play)

1995 A Midsummer Night's Dream (play)

1996 The Taming of the Shrew (play)

1997 The Winter's Tale (play)

1998 Twelfth Night (play)

1999 As You Like It (play)

2000 Romeo and Juliet (play)

2001 Othello (play)

2002 A Midsummer Night's Dream (play)

2002 Giselle (ballet)

2003 La Sylphide (ballet)

2003 Two Gentlemen of Verona (play)

2004 Le Tricorne, The Lady and the Fool (ballet)

2004 Macbeth (play)

2005 Much Ado about Nothing (play)

2005 Swan Lake (Act 2) (ballet)

2006 Carmen (ballet)

2006 Twelfth Night (play)

2007 Ballets al Fresco (ballet)

2007 Romeo and Juliet (play)

2008 Giselle (ballet)

2008 The Merchant of Venice (play)

2009 As You Like It (play)

2009 La Sylphide (ballet)

2010 Anthony and Cleopatra (play)

2010 Les Sylphides, The Firebird (ballet)

2011 Night and Day (ballet)

2011 The Taming of the Shrew (play)

2012 Solitaire, Graduation Ball (ballet)

2012 The Comedy of Errors (play)

2013 A Midsummer Night's Dream (play)

2013 Giselle (ballet)

2014 The Firebird (ballet)

2014 The Tragedy of King Richard III (play)

2015 La Sylphide (ballet)

2015 Othello (play)

2016 Othello (play)

2016 Giselle (ballet)

2018 The Taming of the Shrew (play)


Sheila Chisholm 2016. The founding of Maynardville Open Air Theatre (contains: "Maynardville performance chronology (1950 to 2015)") Unpublished document. Used with the permission of the author.

Donald Inskip 1976. The Maynardville Chronicle, 1956-1976. Epping: Printpak.

Helen Robinson. 2005. Shakespeare at Maynardville. Houghton House Wynberg, 2005.

Percy Tucker 1997. Just the Ticket. My 50 Years in Show Business. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.

Interview with Sheila Chisholm, 22 September, 2016.

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