Back to top

Yvonne Bryceland (1925 -1992)

The Order of Ikhamanga in

Yvonne Bryceland (1925 -1992) Awarded for:
Excellent achievement in the field of dramatic art.

Profile of Yvonne Bryceland

Actress Yvonne Bryceland, née Heilbuth, was born in Cape Town in 1925.

She worked as a newspaper librarian before her theatre debut in Stage Door in 1947.

Bryceland joined the Cape Performing Arts Board in 1964 and became increasingly successful, delivering inspired performances in renowned playwright Athol Fugard's People Are Living There and Boesman and Lena, in which she made her European debut in London.

Fugard wrote many roles specifically for Bryceland and was also influenced by her. The New York Times called her an actress 'who reads the soul' of Fugard.

Fugard himself said that when they first worked together in People Are Living There in 1969, it was clear that in Bryceland he had found 'an interpretive artist who totally understood' what he sought to achieve.

Bryceland's collaborations with Fugard were many and included Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act and The Road to Mecca. The former premiered at the seminal The Space theatre in Cape Town that Bryceland founded in 1972 with her theatre photographer husband, Brian Astbury.

The Space was a non-racial venue at the height of apartheid. It put on close to 300 productions, including The Island and Sizwe Banzi is Dead, the first of epic collaborations between Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. Other works performed at The Space included Fatima Dike's early plays and Donald Howarth's Othello Slegs Blankes. During one performance of The Glass Menagerie, the security police raided the theatre because they had been tipped off that black people were in the audience.

Other plays Bryceland featured in included Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie and Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children.

Of his experience of working with Bryceland, together with Fugard, Kani and Ntshona, in Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act in the late 1960s, actor Ben Kingsley said it was one of the best experiences of his career – 'a young actor's dream'.

After her move to London in 1978, Bryceland joined the Royal National Theatre, where she spent eight years. She relished the opportunity she had there to play a variety of parts at the same time. She once did 12 performances of four different productions in a single week.

Bryceland is probably most celebrated for her role as the unconventional sculptor Helen Martins in The Road to Mecca, which marked her American debut. Based on the true story of the elderly Martins who created a wonderland of life-sized sculptures in the yard of her cottage in a remote Karoo village, Nieuw Bethesda, the play asserts the challenging role of the artist in society. Bryceland was awarded Britain's most prestigious theatre award, the Laurence Olivier Theatre Award, for this portrayal. She repeated the role in the film version of the play, as she did with her role in Boesman and Lena.

Among other made-for-television and feature films she acted in was Shawn Slovo's acclaimed A World Apart in 1988, which won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award.

Described as the first lady of South African theatre, Yvonne Bryceland was an actress who exuded a rare strength of portrayal, particularly of the anti-apartheid works of Athol Fugard. She was a committed South African artist who defied racial segregation by co-founding South Africa's first non-racial theatre.

Yvonne Bryceland died of cancer in 1992 at the age of 66 in London.