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Thursday, August 27, 2009


Mesmerising Surtie-Richards weaves her magic in Willy Russel’s one-character play at ABSA Kollig. (Review by Clinton Marius)

Strolling around the grounds of Port Natal Skool on Saturday afternoon it was heartening to see how many people had turned out to support the ABSA Kollig op die Absa KKNK 2009. Hundreds of people were browsing the fleamarket stalls, or enjoying vetkoek, pancakes, koeksusters and other delicious food. Music pumped from several venues and the family atmosphere was festive and exciting.

In the packed main hall, a boisterous audience waited for the start of one of the festival’s main attractions: Shaleen Surtie-Richards in Shirley Valentyn, an Afrikaans version of Shirley Valentine. Surtie-Richards is best known for her role as Nenna in the television soapie Egoli, and also for her legendary stage and film performance in Dalene Mathee’s Fiela se Kind.

Shirley Valentine is a one-character play written by Willy Russell, and takes the form of a monologue by a working class Liverpool housewife. The version of the play presented here was translated and directed by Hennie van Greunen. I must admit I had reservations about how such a quintessentially British piece would work in Afrikaans. A few minutes into the production and all my misgivings had been swept aside.

Set in the Cape, Shirley Valentyn expertly details the gritty and risqué humour found in the speech of the Afrikaans Cape Coloureds. If anything were to serve as an archive of this unique vernacular, it could well be this script.

Surtie-Richards, a grande dame of South African theatre, lived up to her reputation with a world-class rendition of Shirley’s journey of self-discovery. She had the audience roaring with laughter and hanging on her every word. It would be so easy for an actress simply to play for the laughs in this story, but Surtie-Richards displayed an intense and deeply informed understanding of the underlying desperation, frustration and pathos that the character experiences. With the simplest of gestures, the slightest of shifts in tone, she drew us into the tragic hurt that Shirley, with jolly bravado, has spent a lifetime concealing. In those few moments in the play, when real tears streamed down this actress’s face, as she drew us into the smallest, deepest places in her heart, the impact was palpable. On either side of me audience members were silently weeping with her.

The set consisted of no more than a table, two chairs and a bar, all deftly rearranged for the second act, when Shirley is on holiday in Greece. Another testament to Surtie-Richards’ prowess as an actress was that she performed the entire piece without an interval. An astonishing feat, and one that fully deserved the standing ovation she received.

South African producers and directors could take a few notes from this production. I challenge our local experts, when staging well-known plays-that-become-movies, to realise there is something of the ‘colour-by-numbers’, or ‘theatre-by-blueprint’ feel to lavish, exact copies of the originals. No matter how excellent they are. Shirley Valentyn proves that great works shine even in direct translation ... but that they can glitter when reworked idiomatically, as this piece was.

Shirley Valentyn was voted the most popular production at Aardklop and the ABSA KKNK, and it is one of the finest productions I have ever seen. It’s a great pity that it was only in town for one performance, and I hope the producer will consider bringing it back to Durban for a longer run. I would also advise if it is presented elsewhere in the country, that serious theatregoers fly out to experience the mesmerising Surtie-Richards weaving her magic. Or walk, if necessary! It’s worth it. – Clinton Marius