Jonathan Munby wants everyone to discover Lope de Vega with the excitement he did.
As a young director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Munby received an amazing opportunity. “The Company said to me ‘You can do whatever you like,’ so I had the world’s literature at my disposal. Someone suggested I have a look at the Spanish Golden Age. I knew none of these plays, I knew nothing of the period, I hadn’t heard of Lope de Vega, the father of Spanish theatre. And I picked up in the bookshop a translation of a Lope play by David Johnston. It hit me between the eyes; it was the most thrilling and immediate piece of writing I’d read in a while. It married some things that I was excited about in creating theatre myself: it was deeply poetic, fantastic visceral language, but at the same time, stories that we haven’t heard.”
Now, years after that galvanizing first encounter, Jonathan Munby hopes to bring the same excitement to the Shakespeare Theatre Company with another Lope de Vega play, The Dog in the Manger. Familiar to Washington audiences from his productions of The Canterbury Tales at the Kennedy Center and Noises Off at Arena Stage, Munby has made his name as a director of classic plays at some of England’s leading theatres. But it’s clear that this play is very close to his heart. “The Dog in the Manger is one of the best plays of the Spanish Golden Age,” he says. “The language, the drama, the wit, the human experience, pain and humor, all shine brightly in this master work.”
The Dog in the Manger revolves around the forbidden love between the countess Diana and her low-born secretary Teodoro. “Lope makes a case for love transcending barriers that we create in society, and the barriers that we create for ourselves as individuals as well,” says Munby. “What’s interesting in the play is how these individuals deal with the emotional and social fallout of their desire. What’s also interesting is just how dark this relationship goes as well - Lope’s interested in what happens to a human being if desire is suppressed, and then the door of that feeling is opened. This production certainly won’t shy away from that. But it will be as light and funny as it will be dark and painful, I think. It’s a true landscape of love.”
What excites Munby most of all is this combination of styles in a single play. “Theatre that is able to straddle the comic and tragic, keeping us on a knife-edge of both, I find thrilling,” he says. “Lope, like Shakespeare, is a great humanist, and there’s a great exploration of human behaviors in extreme situations. As we all know, life is both tragic and funny, and that’s very clear in The Dog in the Manger. This play is at times hilariously funny. It is also extremely painful. It’s a great slice of life.”
And Jonathan Munby hopes that Lope de Vega’s insights into life will speak to the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s audience, just as they first spoke to him as a young director in a bookshop. “These plays really do hold a mirror up to who we are,” he says. “Even though the writing is 400 years old, the plays could have been written last week, in terms of their understanding of who we are. Our world changes, but we as human beings don’t.”