Theatre review: Shirley Valentyn

Posted: December 14, 2009 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews
Review:  Shirley Valentyn
Director:  Hennie van Greunen
Stage Design:  Stelontwerp Kosie Smit
Cast:  Shaleen Surtie-Richards.
Reviewer:  Astrid Stark

From kitchen sink to sex on the beach in mid-sentence.

Shaleen Surtie-Richards’ performance as Shirley Valentyn is one of the finest I have seen this year.  It’s hardly surprising that she scooped the Herrie-Kanna award at 2008’s Klein Karoo National Arts Festival, and a 2009 Fleur du Cap award, for this character.  Shirley Valentyn tells the universal story of a middle-aged woman who realises she has never really lived.  Her whole life she has spent raising her children and feeding her husband. She is locked in a soul-destroying routine, which has been dictated by everyone around her, and has never pursued her own dreams. In fact she does not even have dreams of her own. It’s not until her friend Jane, the ‘gender terrorist’ – because her husband left her for another man – buys her a ticket to Greece that she begins to catch a glimpse of what life may be like, if she did what she wanted to do, instead of always doing what she has to do. It’s a story as old as time and it will resonate with many audiences. 

Hennie van Greunen translated Shirley Valentyn from Willy Russell’s much-loved and award-winning play, Shirley Valentine, which was first performed to packed audience on Broadway in 1988.  Van Greunen says when he first started translating the play into Afrikaans, one of the big challenges lay in translating the emotive content of Willy Russell’s original Cockney English.  He realised that it simply will not work in Algemene Beskaafde Afrikaans, (General Civilised Afrikaans) and thus Shirley Valentyn was born with a raw and demonstrative accent that is peppered with Cape flats vernacular, which somehow manages to not slip into a blatant generalisation.  It’s an accent van Greunen calls ‘Cape Cockney’. 

Photo Shaleen Surtie-Richards as Shirley Valentyn

Surtie-Richards embraces her character with a commitment and consummate skill that seems effortless.  During the performance she slips in and out the various characters with ease and she uses the full force of her many years’ experience as an actress to unleash a range of powerful emotions onto the audience. “Marriage is like the war in the Middle East”, Says Valentyn, “There is no solution.  A woman can only pray that he doesn’t use his weapon of mass destruction.”  The humour is at times vulgar, and other times gently moving, but always poignant and thought-provoking.  When Surtie-Richard’s character breaks down, she breaks down completely and we weep with her because we all recognise fragments of Valentyn inside our own carefully constructed lives.  “I used to jump from rooftops, just for fun,” Says Valentyn, “Now I get vertigo when I wear platforms.”   Valentyn reflects on how many of us are dragging our unused lives with us until we die.  And then laments how some of us are already dead before we’ve even died.  They are strong words that provoke powerful emotions and a desire for introspection into our own lives.

Valentyn arrives on the Greek island and she has a slightly sweet, slightly sordid, affair with a Greek Casanova which awakens long forgotten emotions.   Surtie-Richards’ description of the affair is simultaneously raunchy and tender.   In a sketch where Shirley Valentyn meets a couple from Durban and Durbanville the ensuing conversation neatly sums up a world of bigoted attitudes displayed by small-minded travellers.

Van Greunen’s script sounds like poetry as it flows from Surtie-Richard’s lips.   His adaptation of the very typically Cockney English into the Cape Cockney is done intelligently and with great compassion and originality; it simply brings Shirley Valentyn to life.

The simple yet effective stage design transports us from a kitchen in Cape Town to an enchanting beach scene on a Greek island.   The lighting is also used effectively in supporting and highlighting the various quick mood changes and landscapes. 

It is only a shame that English speakers who can’t understand any Afrikaans at all will not be able to enjoy this exceptional performance.  Yet, it is the strength of the translation and the subtle Afrikaans nuances that makes the play so unique. If you can understand a bit of broken Afrikaans you should be able follow most of it as she has peppered her language with a lot of English slang and it may just be worth struggling a bit with your second or third language to see it.

Shirley Valentyn ran at the Artscape Theatre until 13 December 2009.  But I am sure it will be back soon!

The End


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