Defend Truth


Tribute to Brian Astbury, who co-founded the first non-racial theatre in SA


Robert Greig is a poet, novelist, editor and critic, now based in London.

Poet, critic and editor Robert Greig remembers Brian Astbury, the man who co-founded the Space Theatre of Cape Town. The Space was the country’s first non-racial theatre, and its influence on South African drama was immense. Astbury died on 5 March.

Brian Astbury, who died in London on March 5, aged 79, after a heart attack on the London tube,  was best known in South Africa as co-founder of Cape Town’s Space Theatre. (This was with that eminent actor, Yvonne Bryceland (1924-92). He collapsed on a tube train, was hospitalised, briefly resuscitated, and died in the presence of some of his drama students who had gathered to comfort him.

As both co-founder of the Cape Town Space theatre and then as a drama teacher in London, Astbury created possibilities for actors, audiences and his societies. Without Yvonne this would not have happened — and without Athol Fugard’s work and the long relationship both had with Fugard himself before and after the couple left South Africa in 1979.

Astbury, born in 1941, grew up and was schooled in Paarl in the Western Cape. (That a large proportion of prominent artists, like Shakespeare, were not born in the cities where they made their reputations suggests the close relationships of the dorp provides a sound basis for later achievement. Or, simply, lack of distraction.) In his memoir-cum-drama training eBook, Trusting the Actor (2012), Astbury writes that he was “surrounded by sincere and well-meaning people who believed… that Black and Coloured people were not as advanced as Whites”. As a schoolboy, he attended the obligatory productions, mainly by visiting British performers gracing the colonies. On him, they left little impression. 

He enrolled at the University of Cape Town in 1959 to study librarianship and there he met Bryceland, a single mother with three daughters. He, like Athol Fugard, would drop out of UCT, but not before two lecturers, both of colour, had impressed him. His lecturer in Anglo-Saxon, a Mr Van Der Westhuizen, was “far more intelligent than the vast majority of Whites that I knew at that time”, he wrote. His Xhosa language teacher, a Mr Jordan, “was so intellectual that he frightened me”. In fact, though Astbury never seemed to realise this, Dr Jordan was the distinguished AC Jordan, a Fort Hare graduate who, denied a passport to take up a Carnegie Scholarship, went into exile.

While at UCT, Astbury took a vacation job working in the library of the Cape Times where he met the aspirant actress, Bryceland. 

A Damascene experience bound them. This was a date in 1962 on which they saw Athol Fugard’s The Blood Knot, performed at the Labia Theatre. Astbury’s later realisations express those of the post-World War II generation and changed their lives. It explains why they opened The Space and, by extension, why a substantial body of South African theatre emerged, attesting to life in a particular place, in a particular time, and involving difficult ethical and other imperatives. The performance of The Blood Knot changed Bryceland’s and Astbury’s lives in ways that mainstream imported entertainment could not. And for some, seemed a culpable distraction.

Astbury wrote:

“Just short of three hours later, Yvonne and I staggered into the humid night — our lives changed forever. For me it was like discovering for the first time your own language. Up till then all my cultural references came from overseas… I heard, for the first time, the sound of a playwright’s dialogue with the society in which he and I lived”.

This dialogue was entrenched first at The Space and other small Cape Town theatres, then at the state-funded Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal’s Arena theatre in Johannesburg, thence at The Market, partly corporate-funded, and elsewhere. And commerce of exchange and restaging linked these theatres and the theatre, to varying degrees at different times, became sites of public and, broadly, political assembly.

Bryceland and Astbury and others set up The Space theatre in the top two floors of an abandoned building on Buiten Street, off Long Street. (This meant you might watch, say Pieter Dirk Uys’s play Karnaval (1976) with a small-town woman pronouncing over her Long Street balcony “Ek het ’n lus te bugger off to Brazil”, then leaving the theatre see them, or their equivalents.)

Astbury, bulky, amiable and benign, managed the theatre. Bryceland, with her perky grin, was sometimes present in audiences, or performing. Ashbury took to directing works and photographed productions and rehearsals: his oeuvre, now in London, is a national treasure. What will become of it? 

The Space attracted and developed talent — John Kani, Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona, of course, but also Richard E Grant, Grethe Fox, Bill Flynn, Fatima Dike, Pieter-Dirk Uys… the list is endless. The theatre was a site of assembly that staged cutting-edge American and European works, and a body of works that bore witness to lives and surviving. (Later, heaven help us, some mummers appropriated the term to mean preening before numbed audiences.)

In 1979 after eight exhilarating but brutal years of running The Space and depressed by seemingly impossible political change, the couple moved to London. Bryceland was known there, through Fugard performances, but in demand for other roles. For more than five years, lacking a degree, Astbury became “a house-husband”,  but also attempting new careers and working as a photo-journalist. He later taught at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), and then was offered the post of head of courses at the Mountview Theatre School, teaching drama students.

In the 1980s Fugard wrote The Road to Mecca, casting Bryceland as Helen Martins, the Nieu Bethesda eccentric who converted her house and garden to what was essentially an art work, edged with glass shards and statuary in the garden. (She later committed suicide.) Mecca was staged at Yale university in the United States and then in New York and later filmed. In 1992, memory loss on stage was followed by the cancer that killed Bryceland. Perhaps defensively, Astbury theorised that her death was a form of “Holy Cannibalism” — the psyche rebelling against bad directors who encourage actors to mine their psyches for performances. Astbury continued:

“One eventing her ghosts said: Enough — and switched off the light.”

In 2012 Brian and I met for the first time after nearly 40 years — a bright sunlit day, a small Soho cafe. The owner greeted him affectionately. We preferred to talk about the present: the here, the now. I returned once alone to the coffee bar. The owner was warm, as befitting a friend of Brian’s. He and I met a couple of times over the years, but our paths had diverged, mine altered by Yvonne’s and his gifts. DM


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