Theatre Interview: Natasha Sutherland – Shirley Valentine, Or Letting Go And Building Up

January 15, 2022

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By BRUCE DENNILL

Natasha Sutherland stars as Shirley Valentine in VR Theatrical’s production of the play of the same name, written by Willy Russell and directed by Gina Shmukler.

 

This is a story dealing almost completely with the introspective musings of a woman processing life, love and everything else, which is written … by a man. Any views on that?

Boy, did he get it right! I never studied Willy Russell, but he knows what he’s doing. It’s very resonant, with lots of light and shade. It’s a journey about women, but it’s also about men – letting go of what has made us us and re-learning who we are and what we have lost along the way. You can always see the spark of what Shirley was in her lovely sense of humour. There’s a saying that when a woman is struggling, she can either break down or break open. Bursting through paradigms is scary, but liberating.

 

Is a separate and distinct perspective useful in recognising and unpacking the sort of issues Shirley’s dealing with?

I believe that Willy Russell has managed to make her completely authentic – it’s not that his slant is better, it’s just a different one. Maybe it’s a perspective that allows for some breath around the story. There’s another layer to it now post-pandemic – we were all, as with Shirley, in our own little spaces, talking to walls, with a big focus on re-valuating what is important. We all learned, hopefully, that in just ticking all the boxes, we lose focus on ourselves and what matters.

 

How much do you relate to Shirley?

I definitely relate – very specifically – to Shirley’s journey. And not just in one instance of my life. I can look at my divorce, at my kids growing up, at getting older… Part of it is understanding that your comfort zone can become your prison. I’m going to Cape Town for three weeks with this show and I’m scared. I should be happy – no single mom stuff to worry about! But it’s not my … usual. Shirley has a picture of what ‘finding herself’ will look like and where she has felt lack. She blames herself for not living fully. She realises that we think we have the external stuff in place when we don’t. Feeling alive has to start inside.

 

What are the practical challenges like? The Liverpool accent, the talking to walls and rocks – the fact that it’s all a monologue?

It helps that there are such beautiful things to say! I’ve never done a monologue show before and the pressure of knowing that you have to facilitate and hold it all is tough. You need stamina. As for the accent, it’s kind of settled in to what … it is. Ha! Something else is that people have watched the movie and so are expecting that look and a full cast, but it’s all me. What I do is not think of it as a monologue. It’s storytelling with occasional penny-dropping. And that, I know how to do. I grew up in a storytelling household – my mom would tell stories without using books. In the play, it’s kind of relating life as to a friend. When she’s other people, it’s still Shirley being other people.

 

In this case, the saying might be reversed – a holiday is as good as a change, with Shirley heading to Greece to explore new things. For you, how important is travel for character development?

As a creative, I love it – it fuels me. I see things and they settle in me until they come out in writing. In the absence of being able to do that during COVID-19, we’re forced to facilitate a place where we can be enriched and challenged. Shirley had to get out of her flat. She had to go to the sea. She also understood that all of that meant nothing without her epiphany. It comes down to considering things like: does something make you feel satisfied; do you have freedom; do you have space? In the story, Shirley starts in a kitchen, cooking, and ends with her in a taverna, cooking – but now re-united with herself.

 

Do you have a particularly profound moment personally – something experienced during your travels?

Not really. I do think, though, that travel is a great gift to give to my kids, so where possible, we try to spend less elsewhere and more on travel and experiences. Also, as mentioned, it has always really fueled my creativity. It’s taken me out of my routine and comfort zone, and immersion in nature is great for our mental health. We’ve all been domesticated! Many people associate ‘wild’ with ‘chaotic’, but here, it’s more part of that ‘unbecoming’ process again. Change is a constant. We need to be able to let go of what has been; of what we were.

 

As an actress, you’ve been involved in theatre, TV and film projects within a short space of time recently – sometimes simultaneously. How difficult is that, given the different techniques and ways of focusing involved?

You need to make sure that you pace yourself; that you have space and time to breathe – as well as eating well and all of that common sense stuff. But I quite like the cross-pollination. For me, the different mediums feed each other. They help me loosen up. Working on stage helps me to loosen up in film and TV work, which is tightly framed. Working the other way around, I am perhaps more conversational on stage after working in TV. I’ve also been told that I’m quite ‘method’. I like to find an aspect of a character to work with or from – a single element. In Daryn’s Gym, the mockumentary movie I’ve just been in, it was my character having this really big, ridiculous hair. Those external things help me to slot into and identify with someone.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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