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Shirley Valentine gets the show on the road

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Shirley Valentine is coming to Montecasino Theatre from 26 January. The SA Jewish Report speaks to director Gina Shmukler about the show, long delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tell us a little about your theatrical experience and the past two years?

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the theatre industry. I’m exceptionally fortunate that I direct corporate theatre, which has sustained me over the past two years. We have made theatre in the virtual space – basically TV for corporates.

What made you choose to direct Shirley Valentine now?

I was approached by VR Theatrical to direct. We were in rehearsals for Shirley Valentine when COVID-19 hit in March 2020. In February last year, we staged it for the first time at The Etienne Rousseau Theatre in Sasolburg. At that point, theatres were allowed an audience of only 50 people. We played to 50 people in a 456-seater theatre. I remember crying when the first audience entered. Theatre has its own power of connection.

The set, props, and wardrobe were packed for Montecasino as we imagined we would be opening shortly afterwards. Another year passed … and here we are.

What is it about this play that appeals to you in general and as a woman?

Its humanity is what appeals to me. Shirley is alone in a marriage that has lost its love and connection. She’s honest about her aloneness as she talks to her “wall” and later her “rock”. Playwright Willy Russell captures the complexity of relationships, infusing the story with heart, humour, and love. Isolation has become real through the pandemic. We have all experienced the loss of community and connection, and what that means. Shirley’s journey takes her to the point where she falls in love with the idea of living. She discovers what it is to be alive.

Her journey is one about finding and learning to love the most important person in her life. Please explain this, and why it’s an important lesson for all of us?

Shirley has been holding onto a dream, “to sit at the edge of the sea and drink wine in a country where the grapes are grown”. It’s this dream which she believes will nourish her and lead her to happiness. And yet as she sits there, nothing changes. She realises we take ourselves with us, so while she lives that dream, her inner world doesn’t shift. She confronts what she calls her “wasted life”. It’s from this point that she begins to grow and fall in love with herself again.

For some, Shirley Valentine is a sad soul who is lost and so desperate, she talks to walls. For others, she’s a heroine. What is she to you, and why?

She’s a woman who fell in love with her husband, got married and had two kids, and had dreams that life and domesticity interfered with. And she got lost along the way. For me, she’s a woman of great courage and humour, who at the age of 42, redefines what matters to her and then lives by it.

What were you looking for in the actress to play Shirley? What does Natasha Sutherland bring to the role?

When I was auditioning for Shirley, I knew that technically, I needed someone who had real “theatre chops” as a one-person play requires great stamina and guts (to say the least). I hadn’t yet decided my vision for the play, but when Natasha auditioned, she brought something so real, so compelling, so contemporary, that I knew she was probably my Shirley. Theatre runs in Natasha’s veins, and it’s been a gift to work on a well-written play with an extraordinary actress and person.

Why bring a fantasy of a Greek island holiday to our theatres when we have been starved of travel for almost two years?

Doesn’t theatre give us the chance to dream, to be taken to unexpected places emotionally and imaginatively?

Last July, we filmed a virtual event in the Market Theatre and as I sat there, I was struck by what theatre offers me. A chance to get out of my head, to travel through music or the spoken word to unexpected places within myself, and a window to dream.

What do you believe our theatre audiences are looking for now?

Heart. Connection. Community. To laugh and share collectively.

So many theatre personae have been starved of work as a result of the pandemic. How do you believe this should be remedied?

Looking to government and our minister of arts and culture isn’t an option right now.

I have thought so many times who I would dedicate the run of Shirley to and to be honest, there has been so much death in our industry. Artists have suffered with limited work, no medical aid, they have no food, and have lost their homes. It’s very sore!

Nothing replaces the visceral power of the human story shared in a living, breathing environment such as the theatre. My wish would be more investment in the arts from corporates.

Shirley often says, “It’s funny that…” For me, it’s funny that businesses are eager to invest so much in their corporate social investment work when theatre has such a role to play in our society. When we can, let’s all exhale and rebuild our South African theatre industry, but for now, you can start by booking tickets to see Shirley Valentine, which runs from 26 January to 12 February in Joburg at the Pieter Toerien Theatre at Montecasino.

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