AKIVA FOX: Many in our audience may have seen your productions of The Canterbury Tales and Noises Off in Washington D.C., but could you tell them a bit about how you got your start in theatre and directing?
JONATHAN MUNBY: I trained at Bristol Universityand spent my time there happily studying classical texts. I was very lucky once I graduated, having worked briefly at the Bristol OldVic Theatre, to join the Royal Shakespeare Company. I became a resident Assistant Director with the RSC, and I was there for about three years.
AF: What kind of work did that entail?
JM: Everything from supporting the productions in casting and in rehearsal to rehearsing the understudies, which are taken very seriously because of the longevity of the runs. So the maintenance and the casting and the rehearsal of those actors, but also in the dramaturgical sense, too. Dramaturgy hasn’t been invented in the UK yet, and so the Assistant Directors fill that role by providing background research and giving historical context to the plays. And so you’re well used at the RSC as an Assistant Director; it was the best training I could have had. I was fortunate enough for the Company to give me a show before I left. I did a production at The Other Place in Stratford, and the Company said to me ‘You can do whatever you like,’ which was kind of thrilling as I had the world’s literature at my disposal; a very, very hard choice. 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. You know, the father of Spanish Theatre. And I picked up in the bookshop a translation of a Lope play by David Johnston, and it hit me between the eyes; it was the most thrilling and immediate piece of writing I’d read in a while. One of the reasons why it was so thrilling was that it married some things that I was excited about in terms of creating theatre myself: it was wonderful writing, deeply poetic, fantastic visceral language, but at the same time, stories that we haven’t heard. I’m very aware in England of our classical repertoire being on continuous loop, where the onus of a production can focus on creating difference rather than actual storytelling. We’ve been saturated by these plays, and I wonder if the work suffers as a result. With the Spanish Golden Age we have a whole new world to explore; a group of writers, plays and stories that are completely new to us. Also, through translators like David Johnston, we have a means of bringing this brilliant and poetic theatre to a contemporary audience.
So I did this play by Lope de Vega, Madness in Valencia, in a translation by David Johnston, and that was my debut as a professional. That’s what really started me off, and I’m glad to say it was successful, and a really important part of that season at the RSC. That was about seven years ago, and I’ve been working in England since then. I’ve been back to the RSC, but I’ve also been working in regional theatres throughout the UK, mostly working on classical texts and with David Johnston on a Lope de Vega play called The Gentleman from Olmedo, which played a sell-out run at The Watermill Theatre.
AF: So how did you get to America?
JM: By accident, really. I did a production of The Canterbury Tales for the RSC and it was a big success in the UK, and we knew that it would have a life beyond its original production in Stratford. We knew we wanted to take it abroad, and we were invited by the Kennedy Center in Washington to bring it here. It was a staging of the entire canon of The Canterbury Tales, staged by three directors who shared the tales equally between them. One adaptor, Mike Poulton, one designer, one composer, one choreographer, three directors, a cast of twenty-three, five musicians. It was a very merry band, and we went on this pilgrimage across the UK and then abroad to America and Europe. And I have to say, the Washington audience got things in that text that very few people in England actually got. I was thrilled at the response to the work here, and I was invited after that to do a production at Arena Stage in Washington. Molly Smith from Arena Stage was looking for a director for a production off Noises Off, Michael Frayn’s farce, and she knew she wanted a Brit to direct it. So I came and did that and, you know, ‘Work Makes Work” – Michael Kahn came to see Noises Off and he liked it, and he invited me to come and do something at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. I asked him if he’d read any Spanish Golden Age, and it was serendipity: The Shakespeare Theatre Company had just read Lope de Vega’s The Dog in the Manger in its ReDiscovery Series, in the translation by David Johnston. So Michael’s eyes lit up when I mentioned this, and it became very clear to us that this was the play that I would come and direct. It was then about waiting for the right slot and the right time, and so here we are.
AF: This collaboration you have with David Johnston seems like such a significant part of your work on these plays.
JM: It is. I think in David we have a unique voice and a unique brain. He is an academic and understands absolutely the genre, the writers, and the period in an academic sense, but also, through his own voice and his own skill as a playwright, he is able to release these plays for a contemporary audience. David is from the North of Ireland, from Belfast, and there’s something of his own culture, heritage and politics that helps in releasing this work. David is also a fluent Spanish speaker and lectures on Spanish language and culture, so this added to his own skills as a writer, his sense of humor, his understanding and love of poetry, and not least his Irishness make him both a unique being and perfect for bringing these plays to life.
AF: What qualities do you think he brings out?
JM: Aside from the poetry, which David is able to render with staggering beauty, it’s Lope’s interest in the human condition, which is at the core of his translations. David has a great heart, and a great interest and understanding of human nature. It’s this that allows him to release the humanity of Lope’s world and characters. David loves theatre, and has spent all of his life in and out of theatres, watching plays, and working with playwrights, working with directors, hanging out with actors. He’s a real theatre animal, and so David is able to deliver the sheer theatricality of these plays as well.
AF: So what excites you about this play in terms of theme or character?
JM: Lope wrote what are actually called comedias, as a genre. They are neither comic nor tragic; they are both at the same time. In writing these tragicomedies, he created a new genre in Spanish theatre. Theatre that is able to straddle the comic and tragic, keeping us on a knife-edge of both, I find thrilling. I’m drawn to Shakespeare and his contemporaries for exactly the same reason. Lope, like Shakespeare, is a great humanist, and there’s a great exploration of human behaviors, sometimes 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 and very upsetting, too. It’s a great slice of life; you have at the heart of it something intensely felt and dark, an idea of repressed desire. Lope’s interested in what happens to a human being if that desire is suppressed, and then the door of that feeling is opened, what happens to the individual and the individuals around them - and I find that fascinating. It’s a great insight into human behavior. There’s also a kind of contract the play has with an audience, where characters in the play step through the fourth wall and recruit us in to their lives. There is also a very special moment at the end of the piece when the audience is invited to become complicit and maintain a lie. It’s unique to Lope and to the whole genre. There’s also an extraordinary array of characters in this play. There is one of the best comic servant roles that I know in this genre, the role of Tristan, he is central to the plot, and rebounds off the central characters. He is absolutely hilarious, and I know audiences are going to really love spending some time with him. As counterpoints to him you have, at the center of this play, the character of Diana, who is a countess, a member of the aristocracy. For one reason or another, she hasn’t been able have a loving relationship, or investigate her own sense of desire. She goes on an extraordinary journey of self-discovery, redefining herself and her world through a tortured discovery of love and desire.
AF: So what do you think Lope is saying about the very unusual love story at the center of this play?
JM: 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. Lope is saying that love is stronger than those barriers, and love will always win out. What’s interesting in the play is how these individuals deal with the emotional and social fallout of their desire. We know that Lope de Vega fell in love many times in his life; he lived many lives in his own lifetime. He knew these experiences first hand. He’s also responding to what was going on in Spain at the time. There were scandals in Madrid at the time, with members of the aristocracy falling in love with their servants, with social boundaries being transcended by love. What’s also interesting is just how dark this relationship goes - if we deny ourselves something, what that does to us. It takes us to some very dark places, and the production certainly won’t shy away from that. It will be as light and funny as it will be dark and painful, I think. It’ll really run the gamut. It’s a true landscape of love.
AF: As someone who’s worked on Shakespeare a great deal (Lope and Shakespeare are almost exact contemporaries), is there a useful comparison to be made about what these two writers were able to accomplish in their respective countries?
JM: I think so. They were both forging ahead in terms of defining theatre. Both were experimenting with theatrical form, and both treating their audiences to new things, new ideas, new ways of presenting drama. But at the center of both of these playwrights’ work is an understanding of human behavior and human nature. What’s so thrilling from a modern theatre-maker’s point of view is that these plays really do hold a mirror up to who we are, and we see ourselves reflected. 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. Which is both frustrating and reassuring. In these writers there is great humanity and experimentation with form, but also they’re both great entertainers. Lope was writing a new play pretty much every week for his entire adult life. He was the mainstay of live entertainment in Madrid, as Shakespeare and his company were in London at this time; Shakespeare just wrote fewer plays.
AF: You talked earlier about how interested you are in rediscovering and reintroducing plays into the modern repertoire. What about that excites you, and more specifically, about this play?
JM: It’s one of the best plays of the Spanish Golden Age, and for that reason alone it needs to be seen. We’re completely beholden to the skill of the translator, which is probably why so few of these plays are done. But through people like David Johnston we’re able to release them to a contemporary audience. So it’s taking great works – not just good plays but great works of literature – to an entirely new audience. That’s completely thrilling. This play in particular has a sophistication of writing unlike others written by the prolific Lope. There is a strong sense that this play comes from the heart of Lope’s own experiences; he feels very close to this. We know he worked as a secretary for the aristocracy – could he have been enjoying some extra-curricular activities like Teodoro in the play? What is clear is that his planets were in alignment, as it were, when he wrote The Dog in the Manger. The language, the drama, the wit, the human experience, pain and humor, all shine brightly in this master work.
AF: Lastly, what do you hope do with the production elements of the play to bring it to life? Does it need a bridge to a modern audience?
JM: My starting point is really using the idea of translation as a metaphor. David Johnston and I have to negotiate the language and culture of this play to a completely different place and time, to Washington in 2009. You negotiate the language, the ideas, the wit, and we have to take an audience to this play as much as we have to take this play to an audience. So there are certain things I will do in terms of acknowledging that; we’ll try to understand the past and to give the production a sort of classical frame, but we’ll also allow the production a modernity as well. The clothes the characters wear will feel and look very much of early 17th-century Spain, but the choices of materials might be more modern, or there might be a more modern rendering of detail, for example. In terms of music, again it’ll have a period flavor, but it might also incorporate some more modern sounds in the mix. It’s about doing something that’s both classical and contemporary at the same time, as is David’s writing.