Inspirational drama teacher and theatre pioneer remembered

A memorial will be held at Hampstead Theatre to celebrate the life of inspirational drama teacher Brian Astbury

A memorial will be held at Hampstead Theatre to celebrate the life of inspirational drama teacher Brian Astbury who founded South Africa's pioneering The Space Theatre - Credit: Milja Fenger

Friends and former students will pay tribute to inspirational drama teacher and founder of Cape Town's legendary Space Theatre this month.

Brian Astbury, who died in March 2020, created the first racially mixed anti-government arts venue in apartheid era South Africa - promoting the careers of playwrights Fatima Dike and Athol Fugard, as well as artists and actors Pieter-Dirk Uys, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona.

Born in 1941 in the town of Paarl, Astbury was working as a photographer in Cape Town in 1971 when Fugard invited him to document the rehearsal of his reworking of the Greek tragedy Orestes. He also photographed Fugard's play Boesman and Lena, which starred his future wife Yvonne Bryceland.

Athol Fugard

Playwright Athol Fugard who penned acclaimed political plays criticising the apartheid regime in South Africa - Credit: Archant

Together they worked to set up The Space, which opened in May 1972 with Fugard's explosive play Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act about the banning of interracial relationships, closely followed by Sizwe Banzi is Dead, and The Island - based on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned.

Astbury both ran the arts centre and directed numerous plays, before moving to London with Bryceland in the 1980s. They lived in Belsize Park for 25 years raising two daughters alongside Bryceland's daughter from her first marriage.

Brian Astbury outside his favourite cafe Louis in Hampstead

Brian Astbury outside his favourite cafe Louis in Hampstead - Credit: Courtesy of the family of Brian Astbury

Astbury's great passion was teaching, at LAMDA, Mountview - then based in Crouch End - and East 15 Acting School as well as writing books including Trusting the Actor and Everyone Can Write. He encouraged his LAMDA students to set up the Arts Threshold Theatre where Coronation Street and Broadchurch star Julie Hesmondhalgh cut her teeth as an actor, and future National Theatre director Rufus Norris directed his first play.

Both are helping to celebrate his life life at Hampstead Theatre with says Hesmondhalgh: "Music, memories, readings and a screening of documentary The Space: Theatre of Survival featuring Brian himself."

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“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.”

Norris called Astbury: “A unique figure in British theatre". 

"Provocative, controversial, doggedly inspiring and fearless in his pursuit of the truth...the pivotal teacher for me and countless others.”

Hesmondhalgh has set up a Crowdfunder to cover the cost of "a long overdue celebration of our great friend, teacher and mentor Brian Astbury".

The event runs from 2-6.30pm on May 22. Contribute at www.gofundme.com/f/celebrating-the-life-and-work-of-brian-astbury