The Maynardville Open-Air Theatre is situated in Maynardville Park, Wynberg. The spectacular green wooded park has earned it the repution for is 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. Most famous for the annual Shakespeare-in-the-Park, it has, since 1956 attracted an average attendance of 20 000 patrons per year, a strong focus of which is the Schools in the Western Cape. The Shakespeare performs to as many as 8000 grade 9 to 12 scholars annually from as far afield as Heidelberg.
James Mortimer Maynard originally came to the Cape as an 1820 Settler, with his parents and three siblings, on the Aurora, as part of Sephton’s party of British settlers destined for the Eastern Cape. They were listed as Sawers and Husbandmen, but saw no future in the Eastern Cape, so did not disembark, and were back in Simonstown in less than a month. The family were astute businessmen, returning to providing timber for the growing developments, and by the 1830’s James Maynard had already turned his attention to property speculation. He was in a position to offer extensive mortgages to those in need of them, as he did for the widow Ellert of the farm Rosendal in Wynberg. When she died in 1835, he took over the property in settlement of the mortgage debt, making it his home and renaming it Maynard’s Villa. Extensive improvements and further land acquisitions followed to turn the farm into a park.
The Maynard family attended the Wesleyan chapel, and it is here that we find the first reference to the use of Maynard’s Villa as a public venue. Open-air tea meetings were held, and these were the first of many social gatherings held in the gardens of the estate. At his country home, James Maynard was able to assume the role of patron and benefactor. In 1851 an advertisement appeared, announcing that “Mr Maynard opens his grounds to picnickers in the summer months”.
When Maynard died, he left the bulk of his estate to his nephew William Farmer, who enlarged the house and entertained lavishly in both house and garden. A 110ft long archery lawn was laid out, garden parties were held and band concerts were a popular entertainment. Farmer died suddenly in 1899, and during the War that followed this, Mrs Farmer allowed the house to be a convalescent home. Fund raising activities and concerts for the entertainment of the troops took place in the gardens, Military bands played once more on the lawns at Maynardville and local singers performed at these concerts.
It is perfectly clear that the public were welcome to participate in entertainments that happened at Maynard’s Villa. The family were closely involved in the Union Castle Line, and many passengers were welcomed to the house. Mrs Farmer went back to England in 1901. The house was let until her daughter Enid Bernard returned in 1925. She died in 1949 and her two sons decided to put the property on the market for 95,000 pounds. It was argued in Council that the City should sell Wynberg Park to purchase Maynardville, but in the end they found the money and both were retained for public use.
Before any decision could be taken by the City about what should be done with their new acquisition, the Committee of the Athlone Group for Nursery Education, headed by Mrs Margaret Molteno, applied to the City Council to use a portion of the Park on 1 December 1950 for an open-air ballet performance on a temporary platform stage. They approached Dulcie Howes, head of the UCT Ballet School to provide the entertainment, and she came up with a triple bill comprising Les Sylphides, St Valentines Night and Les Diversions. The Municipal Orchestra under the baton of Dr Erik Chisholm was provided as the City’s contribution.
On this occasion the old homestead was used as dressing rooms, and electricity was led from the house to the grounds. This followed a tradition of entertainments which had been organized by the owners for their guests and for public functions.
The Villa was sited where the white walls onto Wolfe Street still exist. The tradesman’s entrance is bricked up but can be seen behind the new Toilet block. There is a small plaque to the right of this block marking the position.
The stage area has been identified as being to the south of the Shakespeare Open Air Theatre, between three large old trees and slightly to the south of the site of the Villa. Dancers who participated in the first ballets remember the flowering gum (still standing), which would have been a sight in December.
This successful fundraiser was followed by others in 1951 and 1952. It was unfortunate that the Villa had been allowed to deteriorate since the purchase by the City, and a decision was made to demolish. This meant that the next fundraiser would have to move their performance to the Church Street side of the Park to draw an electrical supply from there. This was done, and the performers were housed in makeshift dressing rooms.
On 1 January 1954 Mrs Jansen, wife of the Governor General of South Africa, officially opened the Park to the public, just two days after a performance of choral works and ballet had been presented in circumstances which were not ideal.
This was a time when venues for public performance were not easy to find. The amateur dramatic societies had kept theatre alive during the war years, and some, like Spotlight Theatre had raised considerable funds for the war effort. Its founders, Rene Ahrenson and Cecelia Sonnenberg were unusual in that they were not suburban based, but used the Little Theatre and a small theatre in Electricity House in Burg Street. During the 1950’s the amateur societies were strong players in the entertainment scene, but were being challenged by the establishment of professional companies headed by Brian Brooke and Leonard Schach. Both Rene and Cecelia were skilled actresses, and also competent administrators, and it was only natural that after the war ended, they should look for new opportunities. They wanted something new and different to absorb their creative energies.
They found it at the Maynardville Park in Wynberg.
Cecelia had contacts in the Cape Town City Council and they eventually bullied the councillors into creating a stage and raked auditorium for them to mount a production of The Taming of the Shrew. By a happy accident they had met Leslie French in England and persuaded him to come to Cape Town to direct and act in the play. He was a celebrated stage and film actor who had started as a boy in the Ben Greet Players and had gone on to star in Lillian Bayliss' Old Vic productions and was famous for his performances in the open air theatre in Regent's Park in London. Just before he was due to board the mail-boat for Cape Town, Leslie received a telegram from Cecelia and Rene telling him not to come because they had "cold feet". Leslie's response was typical. He sent a cable back: "Buy hot water bottles, I'm coming out". That first production at Maynardville in 1956 of "The Taming of the Shrew" ran to packed houses for a month and thus started a legend...
In a period when it was not easy, the cast and audiences were always multi-racial. Many people who are now leading lights in SA theatre started out or enhanced their careers in those early productions; Roy Sargeant, Ralph Lawson, Michael McGovern,
John Whiteley and Lyn Hooker, to name but a few. Cecelia and Rene also lured many overseas actors to Maynardville, some of whom, like Michael Atkinson and Keith Grenville, settled here and have enriched the South African theatre ever since.
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. Thanks to the Maynardville Open-Air Theatre, hundreds of thousands of Cape school children have experienced their first taste of Shakespeare as it should be; as a live performance on stage. Generations of boys and girls discovered they could understand the Elizabethan
language and found that the 400 year old plays could be as fresh and absorbing as any contemporary drama.
In 1975 Cecilia and René joined hands with CAPAB in joint management of Maynardville for the next five years. After their retirement from Maynardville,
on the occasion of the 25th year of production, Romeo and Juliet, the CAPAB Drama department kept the flame alive. For 17 years they brought guest actors to Maynardville and together with the core company mounted a further 18 productions in this time. When the Drama Department closed in the mid 90's there was still a commitment to ensuring the continuance of the Shakespeare-in-the-Park. The Maynardville Theatre Trust was established with Cecilia Sonnenberg as patron to give guidance and strategic support for Maynardville. Today Artscape and the Maynardville Theatre Trust continue to carry the banner of Classical Theatre and Dance at the Maynardville Open-Air Theatre