Brian Astbury: Founder of first racially mixed theatre in apartheid South Africa

  • london
  • August 14, 2020
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Against all odds, Brian Astbury founded Cape Town’s legendary Space Theatre in 1972. It was the first racially mixed, anti-government, unsubsidised theatre to exist in apartheid South Africa, responsible for launching the careers of artists like Pieter-Dirk Uys, Fatima Dike (the country’s first black female playwright) and, famously, Athol Fugard, whose work in collaboration with Brian’s wife, Yvonne Bryceland, became world-renowned.

The acting teacher, writer and photographer has died after a short coronary illness in hospital in London. He was 78. It feels fitting to be writing this appreciation of Brian now, as Black Lives Matter becomes a global movement and as theatre in the UK fights for survival in the era of Covid-19.

He was working as a photographer in Cape Town in 1971 when he was invited by Fugard to document the rehearsal period of the piece of theatre that would change his life: Orestes, a reworking of the Greek myth, using four actors, a suitcase and a chair, and telling the story of the infamous Johannesburg station suitcase bombing in fewer than 200 words.

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Only last year did Brian complete a beautiful photo journal of that process. It was witnessing the power of this theatrical metaphor, and Fugard’s extraordinary storytelling skills, that spurred Brian on to create a theatre that would commit to telling stories that challenged the audience, and asked difficult and important questions about 1970s South Africa. The Space opened with Fugard’s explosive Statements after an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, which starred Athol and Yvonne. An early run of Sizwe Banzi is Dead at the Space enabled John Kani and Winston Ntshona to become professional actors, and these two plays, along with The Island, formed the Royal Court’s South African season in 1974, launching successful international careers for all the artists involved.

Brian’s quiet and genteel childhood in Paarl could not have prepared him for how meeting Yvonne would change the course of his life and career. Their paths first crossed when he was 23. Yvonne was a newly divorced mother of three daughters, and 16 years his senior. She was the love of his life, and, as he would always proudly boast to the end, the only woman he ever kissed. Yvonne died in 1992.

When Brian and Yvonne moved to the English capital in the 1980s, Brian started to teach at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and it was here, in 1988, that I first met him. It was my first week at the school, a chippy Accringtonian, struggling to square this fancy conservatoire training with my earnest, and probably irritatingly vocal, need to change the world. In that first session with Brian I knew that I had met my mentor. He spoke with passion about the artist’s role in telling stories that challenge injustice and inequality. He had witnessed firsthand the power of theatre, of art, in a society that heavily penalised those who spoke out.

Brian was always aware of his privilege as a white man in that beautiful country, torn apart by colonialism and institutionalised racism. As a pacifist, the armed struggle of Mandela’s ANC was never an option. Creating The Space was an act of great courage and rebellion. It changed lives. He changed my life.

When I graduated he had already helped a group of former students set up the Arts Threshold theatre company. Under his guidance, we all built a new theatre in an old church hall under a block of flats, raising money for seating, lights, a box office, by hand writing letters to every famous person we could think of. We opened in 1991. Few among us had thought it possible, but Brian’s belief in us and his endless trust in life, spurred us on to create this wonderful venue where so many of us started our careers. It was the most exciting, creatively gratifying time, an apprenticeship in theatre-making on every level: from properly cleaning the toilets and making the perfect banana cake for the makeshift cafe, to actually putting on plays.

The artistic director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, directed his first play there, and went on to run Arts Threshold for two years.

He writes: “Brian was provocative, controversial, and profoundly unimpressed with anything approaching cowardice. He constantly challenged you to be your best self, as long as the yardstick for that was personal and truthful. That, for him, was political. He was doggedly inspiring and the pivotal teacher, enabler and mentor for me and countless others.”

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Brian went on to teach at Mountview and then to set up the first contemporary theatre course at East 15 drama school, writing several books on acting, with methods on accessing emotion at the heart of his teaching. Trusting the Actor was published in 2011, and remains the best book on acting I’ve ever read. The Space: Theatre of Survival, a documentary about Brian and his groundbreaking theatre, came out last year.

Brian had many jobs throughout his life: he was a writer, a hugely successful theatre photographer and photojournalist for many years, a less successful librarian (famously reading every book in Paarl Library until he was sacked for not actually doing any work) and the director of many plays.

But teaching was his passion, his calling, and those of us lucky enough to have been taught by him will never forget his kindness, patience, endless curiosity and sense of wonder, determination, guidance, loyalty and passion. Not to mention his big snorting belly laugh.

When his death was announced in March, the outpouring of grief and disbelief on social media from all over the world was overwhelming. He was working, questioning, campaigning, writing, teaching, encouraging, to the end. Not a day goes by when I don’t long to hear his take on what is happening in the world right now. He seemed indestructible, and those of us who knew and loved him miss him every day; not least his sister Brenda, who survives him, his beloved step-daughters Colleen and Melanie and his many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Brian Astbury, acting teacher, writer and photographer, born 14 November 1941, died 5 March 2020