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Pushing the Boundaries

A production of Measure for Measure changed Jonathan Munby’s life. Talking with excited erudition from London, the director can still recall the experience.

“I was in high school,” he remembers. “It was Measure for Measure.” The director was Declan Donnelan, of Cheek by Jowl, the English company famous for their irreverent adaptations of Shakespeare and other classics.

Painting of Claudio and Isabella by William Hunt (1850).

“It was incredibly vivid, set in a 20th century world. The most startling moment for me was the way they handled the ending, the Duke’s proposal to Isabella. I remember her smacking him directly across the face. It liberated the play for me. It felt like he was saying, directly to me: ‘Don’t just accept convention. Stay true to your instincts.’ If you stay true to the humanity of these plays, then whatever will be in the final moments of these complicated plays will be. It was a transcendent moment for me in terms of my understanding Shakespeare and the way it might be performed in the present tense.”

The ending of Measure for Measure is a famous “problem” in Shakespeare criticism, but according to Munby, the rest of the play poses similarly controversial—and unanswerable—questions. The play, perhaps the most provocative of Shakespeare’s “problem comedies,” is also, in Munby’s words, “a hybrid tragedy.” The plot hinges on the decision made by Isabella, a novice nun who is sexually propositioned by Angelo, the deputy of Vienna. Isabella defeats Angelo and saves her chastity with the help of the Duke— who is disguised as a friar—only to have the Duke proposition Isabella himself at the very end of the play.

“The central axis of this play,” Munby contends, “is human sexuality inconflict with the stricture of law and religion. I think this play is aboutthe birth of sexuality, in fact. Sex informs every scene and almost every character. But it opens onto a much wider dialogue: What is acceptable in society? How do we govern our own sexuality, which can be so at odds with our humanity? What is the role of faith and religion in all of this? And at the end of the day, it feels like very human choices have been made to solve these human dilemmas. It’s a play that transcends period and culture, I think.”

Measure for Measure’s timeless intrigue—the play’s ability to touch on contemporary taboos as well as Shakespearean ones—is one reason why Munby has chosen a 20th-century setting for his production. Vienna and the larger German-speaking world in the 1930s, says Munby, “was an incredibly fertile time and an incredibly unstable time. On the one hand, you have this explosion of productivity in music, in visual arts, in literature. Psychoanalysis was being born during this period. But this creativity and liberation, while very joyful, was also very dangerous, perfect ground for the far right to seize power. Fascism was seen as a solution for a lot of problems, and indeed it was. Angelo’s regime is also a kind of solution to a problem.” Munby is no stranger to reimagining the classics. He has quickly established a reputation on both sides of the Atlantic for his willingness to take on some of the most controversial plays in the canon. Recently, he staged John Ford’s Jacobean incest tragedy ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

Earlier in the 2000s, his reputation grew among hardcore canon-spotters for two ambitious
rediscoveries at London’s Donmar Warehouse: brand new translations of Calderon’s Life is a
Dream and Heinrich von Kleist’s Prince of Homburg. Both classics are rarely produced, beloved by theorists and feared by practitioners for their thorny mixture of philosophy, sensuality and, in the case of Kleist, fascism. Washington audiences know Munby, of course, from his Helen Hayes-nominated stint directing Lope de Vega’s The Dog in the Manger here at STC in 2008, as well as his award-winning direction of The Canterbury Tales, on tour from the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Kennedy Center in 2005.

“It feels like the playwrights of this era,” Munby says, with a nod to Jacobean Shakespeare, John Ford and John Webster, “are kind of pushing the boundaries, in terms of what’s acceptable to show onstage. Some of these plays become the Quentin Tarantino movies of their time. Measure for Measure may not be physically explicit, but it has some very explicit ideas.”
Perhaps the most explicit notion in the play, according to Munby, is the extent to which Shakespeare subversively portrays James I, the bisexual, hard-drinking, theatre-loving king who casts an inimitable shadow over Shakespeare’s late works. “I’m exploring transgression in this play, in order to find that provocative edge that Shakespeare was seeking 400 years ago. I’m interested in a Duke who is wrestling with his own sexuality and identity, someone who is seeking to know himself after a period of anarchy for fourteen years. There are many scenes in this play that sail very close to the wind, that feel absolutely double-edged. I think that’s where part of the ending of the play comes from. Shakespeare wrote the play he wanted to write and then, to avoid having his head cut off, wrapped it up rather neatly. Too neatly, I think, for us in the 21st century.”

And as for how he’s going to handle that infamous ending? “I think we’ll find that out,” he
says, smiling, before continuing. “I think if you stay true to the human experience, then it’s hard to wrap up these plays conventionally. We don’t have to tie things up neatly anymore. Life isn’t neat. Life is complicated and sexy and dangerous. And I want the end to be as complex and as messy as life is.”

Drew Lichtenberg is the Literary Associate at STC and production dramaturg for Measure for Measure. He holds an MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from Yale School of Drama.

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