BILLY SUTER chats to stage, TV and film star, motivational speaker and author NATASHA SUTHERLAND about her upcoming title role in Willy Russell’s popular one-woman play, Shirley Valentine, which has a season at Johannesburg’s Pieter Toerien Theatre at Montecasino from January 26 to February 13. Presented by VR Theatrical and directed by Gina Shmukler, the production is scheduled for performances at 8pm Wednesdays to Saturdays, 4pm on Saturdays and 3pm on Sundays. Tickets (R135 to R220) are available at Computicket.
SHIRLEY VALENTINE IS A DELIGHTFUL PLAY ABOUT A WOMAN IN A RUT WHO TAKES A JOURNEY CELEBRATING MANY A CONTEMPORARY WOMAN BALANCING MOTHERHOOD, MARRIAGE AND SELF-ACTUALISATION. WHAT THOUGHTS ON YOUR TITLE CHARACTER AND THE PLAY?
I am in awe of the resilience of both this play and its protagonist. Written in the ‘80s, it still has themes resonant to this day, far beyond the dismissive notion, by some, that it’s just about a woman reacting against the restriction of domesticity. It has themes that stand the test of time as well as ones that have shifted with the changing landscape of our world.
How many of us during this pandemic have talked to our walls over lockdown? How many of us have taken stock of our lives… questioned what really matters? Or battled with the idea of our comfort zones being rocked – felt galvanised (but at the same time paralysed) to make change?
These are all things Shirley experiences. She feels the need to move from a place of loneliness to a place of reunion – with herself. AND …she also wants to get a tan and ‘drink wine in a country where the grape is grown’.
She is badass in the way that she displays little self-pity. She has her own, unique brand of spunk and understands, without understanding at first, that life is a gift and living it fully is the way to honour that gift.
I have never played her before and it was never on my radar to get the honour of performing such an iconic character.
HOW DOES YOUR SHIRLEY, AND THIS NEW STAGING, COMPARE TO OTHER STAGE VERSIONS AND THE FILM VERSION WITH PAULINE COLLINS?
The stage play is a one-woman show so (unlike the movie which was actually based on the play) there are no extra actors playing Costas, or Joe, or Marjorie Majors. They are all Shirley’s takes on the very real people in her life.
Our director, Gina Shmukler, has given a breath of fresh air to the usual Shirley Valentine setting of realism. Gina has created a pared-back, theatre-of-the-mind approach, taking the bones of the play back to good ol’ storytelling roots.
This stylised and beautifully crafted vision of hers really allows Willy Russell’s text, and the energy of Shirley, to take centrestage.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO PEOPLE TO ENCOURAGE THEM TO SEE “SHIRLEY VALENTINE” AT MONTECASINO?
Because its theatre!!! And it’s been so long – we’ve been having a cultural famine. Because it’s a story that is heartfelt and heartening, and who doesn’t need a little heart at the moment? Because there’s laughter and festoon lights… and because you get to go to Greece without all the fuss.
Also protocols and social distancing have been put in place to ensure as much safety as possible. And…because it’s a play about embracing life and getting out of your comfort zone.
So don’t just binge-watch TV for another night – come spend it in community, at the theatre with Ms Valentine!
HOW HAS COVID-19 AFFECTED YOU IN GENERAL, AND WHAT THOUGHTS ON ITS DEVASTATION OF THE PERFORMING ARTS INDUSTRY?
It’s made me realise how fragile and resilient we are, in the same breath. I’ve realised how much we’ve taken theatre and storytelling for granted, and how important the humanities are for the spirit and growth of our community.
There is a transcendence like no other experienced between an audience sharing in a story with the actors portraying it. I am hoping that out of the devastation and loss our industry has experienced over this time, that some sort of recognition, gravitas and respect is finally given to it and the people whose livelihoods depend on it.
WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN UP TO DURING THE COVID YEARS?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have been working on television and film projects.
WHEN LAST DID YOU TREAD THE BOARDS AND IN WHAT ROLE?
In 2019 at Theatre on the Square, as well as the Hilton Arts Festival. I played the role of Tracy Going in a play I adapted from her autobiography, Brutal Legacy. Directed by Lesedi Job, it dealt with the uncomfortable landscape of domestic violence and the cycle of abuse.
OF ALL YOUR STAGE ROLES, WHAT HAVE BEEN AMONG FAVOURITES?
Gosh, that’s a tough choice – I’ve been so lucky. I would have to say (apart from Shirley Valentine), playing Helen in the Market Theatre’s production of Meet me at Dawn, directed by Lesedi Job. I performed with Pamela Nomvete, so it was amazing to be in creation with these powerhouse women.
Playing Tracy Going in Brutal Legacy, as mentioned above, was also an amazing experience. I got to write it and honour a woman I respect and admire – and put words and weight behind an issue I feel so strongly about.
Playing the part of The Prostitute in Ilse ven Hemerts’ adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Rond was also a highlight. It was a Loft Theatre production called Rendezvous. I was very young when I played it, but I remember it as a significant part of my journey as an actress, learning and growing.
ANY DREAM ROLES?
At my age? I’d better start writing them…
AMONG YOUR MANY TV ROLES, WHICH HAVE HAD SPECIAL MEANING FOR YOU?
Well, the last couple of film/TV projects I worked on were great experiences.
M-Net’s TV drama, Lioness, saw me playing a brittle, frosty, helicopter mom, Megan Hugo. I loved playing with the shades of an obviously unlikable character and not making her a villain in my mind, but finding her vulnerability and need to control being the hinge points to her unravelling.
Daryn’s Gym was a mockumentary comedy film written and directed by Brett Michael Innes. My character, ‘Starla’, was an ex-fitness model. She had this way of being innocent and yet irreverent and inappropriate at the same time. It was such fun. I loved working in the mockumentary genre. The movie made it to the Official selection of the 2022 Rotterdam International Film Festival
WHAT WAS YOUR LAST TV ROLE – AND WHAT MEMORIES OF THAT EXPERIENCE?
It was Lioness for M-Net. I got to work with a super cast. Extreme talent – the lead (and my character’s nemesis) was Shannon Esra, my husband was played by Frank Rautenbach…. I loved the sense of adventure and play we had. Nuanced and yet bold (… I thought).
AS THE DAUGHTER OF HIGHLY RESPECTED DURBAN THEATRE PERSONALITIES GEOFFREY AND KENLYNN SUTHERLAND, THEATRE WAS IN YOUR BLOOD. WHERE AND WHEN DID YOU FIRST STUDY THEATRE AND WHAT MARKED YOUR FIRST BIG BREAK ON STAGE?
I studied theatre ….growing up … with both my parents involved in the business of storytelling. I was lucky enough to be immersed in it from an early age.
I always intended on going to study drama after school at Natal Uni, but I was accepted into Napac’s Loft Theatre repertory company, at the Playhouse in Durban, and it was just too good an opportunity to turn down.
What an experience! Performing at night and rehearsing a totally different genre and discipline during the day, I learnt about stamina and adaptability amongst many other things.
TELL ME ABOUT REMINISCENCES OF YOUR PLAYHOUSE LOFT DAYS – WHAT WERE SOME PRODUCTIONS IN WHICH YOU APPEARED THEN; WHO WERE AMONG YOUR COLLEAGUES?
Gosh, I worked with so many talented peeps. Some of them are icons in our industry now as directors, actors, writers, producers. We were all so young and brave back then. James Ngcobo, Leila Henriques, Wilmien Rousseau, Brenda Radloff, Christopher Catherine, Grant Swanby, Lisa Bobbert, Aaron Mcllroy and the late Lindelani Buthelezi… to name but a few.
Something amazing the Loft taught me – it was a space that facilitated the ability to embrace success in our field as well as acknowledge the lessons learnt when things failed.
YOU LATE DAD, GEOFFREY SUTHERLAND, REMAINS AN ICON OF THE SOUTH AFRICAN THEATRE SCENE. WHAT WORK DID YOU DO WITH HIM, WHAT MEMORIES OF HIS CONTRIBUTIONS TO THEATRE? WHAT DO YOU MOST MISS ABOUT HIM?
I miss most that he is not here anymore. Full stop.
His Musical Trilogy at Durban’s Playhouse (Candide, Sweeney Tood and Sweet Charity, in repertory) was an innovative triumph. A brave project that electrified our industry – audiences and performers alike.
His Queen at the Opera was audacious and visually explosive. I just loved his love for theatre. It was contagious.
I only got to work in two of his productions. I was in the chorus of Sweeney Todd. And I played the tiniest of roles, as Pontius Pilates’ wife, in Jesus Christ Superstar. At least it was something – and for that I am very grateful.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST EMBARRASSING OR OTHERWISE MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT ON STAGE?
When I was cast by John Moss as Cinderella in his classic pantomime at the Playhouse I was made aware of the many traditions and superstitions that come along with a traditional panto – one of them being that the last rhyming couplet of the play, in this case Cinderella’s lines, were never to be said in the rehearsals, ever, They were only to be spoken once we had audiences present.
So, to stop myself from making a ‘traditional blunder’, I pointedly did not learn those last few lines until the day arrived when we had our first audience. But, of course, with all the fluff and excitement of a first audience I forgot about the learning of the last rhyming couplet. As the panto came to the end and the spotlight fell on me, I realised my attempt to not blunder had ended up me blundering in a different kind of way.
Luckily Brenda Radloff, playing my Prince Charming, came to my rescue and said the lines (which she’d learned!).
TELL ME A LITTLE MORE ABOUT YOUR SUCCESS – AND CURRENT AND FUTURE PLANS – AS AN AUTHOR, MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKER AND COUNSELLOR?
I did study Logtherapy through the Centre for Applied Psychology at Unisa, but I’m not a counsellor, although I used the tenets of Vicor Frankl’s teachings in my motivational talks.
I have some theatre and film and TV projects lined up for this year, but at this point I am not free to divulge any info.
Writing is a big love – mixed with the highs and lows of passion and procrastination. I was lucky enough to be included in How Now Brown Cow’s writers collective last year, and wrote another play which I would love to pursue in its production.
And, of course, in terms of film , TV and novels, I am working on a few projects. Whether they remain passion projects or become work that will materialise, we’ll have to see.
DO SEBASTIAN AND BENJAMIN, YOUR SONS WITH FORMER HUSBAND STEVE HOFMEYR, FOLLOW IN YOUR FOOTSTEPS IN ANY WAY?
Sebastian is 20 and in third-year varsity, studying psychology. He did drama at school and his theatre work was pretty damn impressive, even if I say so myself.
Ben is In matric and also has creativity bubbling up from him. At this stage, I am not sure where he’’ll focus it on, since game design, acting, directing, storytelling, sound design and animation are all areas of interest and talent.
WHAT LOCAL AND INTERNATIONAL ENTERTAINMENT PERSONALITIES DO YOU MOST ADMIRE – AND WHO WOULD BE YOUR DREAM CO-STARS?
Oh, gosh! If I could be in something that Phoebe Waller Bridge wrote I would love that!
WHAT IS SOMETHING ABOUT YOURSELF THAT THE GENERAL PUBLIC IS UNLIKELY TO KNOW?
I am a Star Wars geek.
WHAT MAKES YOU LAUGH OUT LOUD? AND CRY? AND MAKE YOU ANGRY?
My boys. My boys. My boys. Boy, do I love them! They enrich my life.
WHAT FIVE THINGS WOULD YOU LIST UNDER SIMPLY IRRRESISTIBLE?
Trees, chocolate, the sea, the moon, travel… did I mention chocolate?