Maynardville Open Air Theatre
Maynardville Open Air Theatre
The Maynardville Open-Air Theatre is situated in Maynardville Park, Wynberg. The spectacular green wooded park has earned it the reputation 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 700-seater theatre setting.
Most famous for the annual Shakespeare-in-the-Park, it has, since 1956 attracted an average attendance of 18 000 patrons per year to the Shakespeare, 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.
In the mid 1950's, after successful ballet performances mounted by Dulcie Howes (then principle of the University of Cape Town Ballet School) in the park, but outside the current theatre venue, Cecilia Sonnenberg and Rene Ahrenson, well-known South African actresses conceived the idea that the park in Wynberg would make an ideal open air theatre for an annual Shakespeare.
Cecilia had contacts in the Cape Town City Council. She and René eventually bullied the councilors 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 Cecilia and René 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 multiracial. 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.
Cecilia and René 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, together with the Maynardville Theatre Trust, continues to carry the banner of Classical Theatre and Dance at the Maynardville Open-Air Theatre.
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