Jonathan Munby sounds excited. I am speaking to him two days before the opening of Twelfth Night at the Crucible, his fifth show at Sheffield Theatres. “I love working here, it’s one of the best theatres in the country, certainly for Shakespeare. It’s one of the best spaces for these plays, possibly in the world. It ranks up there, I think. The building is so supportive, you feel like you’re part of a very supportive process. I love the audiences too, very passionate and engaged.” This production has been a long time coming for Munby: “This is the play that I’ve wanted to do for a long time and one I feel very very passionately about. Productions have never quite lived up to my expectation, which is kind of the reason I always wanted to do it. I wanted to try and deliver the production in my head and in my heart.'”
“It’s one I studied in school, so I feel as if I’ve learnt it very well. It’s always been with me. It has always struck a very personal chord with me. It’s a play about love in many different forms, love in many different ways. But it’s also about sexuality. I think Shakespeare makes a claim in this play for sexuality being a very fluid thing. I think it makes the point that we fall in love with people, not just a specific gender. And that’s something that has always intrigued me about the play, and intrigued me about society too, our society.” He warms to his theme; “We seem so rigid and so caught, with labels and the need to identify and belong to a certain social structure. And I think this play blasts open all of those ideas and says actually, people fall in love, and people fall in love with human beings regardless of their gender.”
After he left Bristol University, Munby became an assistant director at the RSC and assisted on a production of Twelfth Night.“I lived with it for nearly two years. And so I know it very well, intimately, from the inside”. This intimacy Jonathan speaks of is his secret weapon. I ask him what advice he would give to a young director, specifically trying Shakespeare? “It begins and ends with the text. The text, the text, the text,” he almost laughs. “The words are everything. You can’t ever know these plays well enough. You know it’s fascinating how every time I return to these plays they reveal themselves in a new and different way. And that’s about the text being so rich and complex, it’s also about how great works of literature reflect who we are at the time that we engage with them/” We talk about the unfortunate evil of Shakespeare done badly, “How awful! How awful it is for a young audience member to see a bad production of Hamlet, and to think that Hamlet is a bad play!”
Munby is Creative Associate at English Touring Theatre (ETT), a role he took because of his passion for the sharing of theatre around the country. For him, touring is “vital… it’s interesting that our national companies are touring less and less. I think it’s a crime. We have a responsibility in the subsidised theatre sector to take drama out to as wide an audience as we can. It’s great that Sheffield see an opportunity to take their work beyond their stages, and be seen by a wider audience. The co-production with ETT has allowed that. And that’s a very positive thing.”
After its month-long run at The Crucible, Twelfth Night is going on tour to Blackpool, Watford, Cambridge, Truro, Richmond and Brighton. Perhaps naively, I ask one of the biggest directors in British theatre if he will be going on tour too. He laughs. “Oh no, I’ve got an assistant director for that, which is also a really important part of the process. The role of an assistant is incredibly important because it’s a very valuable stage in the journey of a young practitioner, to learn the craft. I create this production by having an assistant director that works with me… I will make the senior version of it, start the tour, and then it becomes my assistant’s responsibility; exactly as my career started, and an incredibly important part of any young director’s journey.” He almost sounds wistful: “You learn directing by doing it, and watching other people do it, and doing it yourself.”
Birkbeck-trained Peter Bradley is the assistant director of Munby’s Twelfth Night. Munby is a big fan of the course at Birkbeck, University of London, as he feels its students are “very well trained and at a very interesting point in their career… they are hungry for experience, hungry for opportunity.” Munby’s hunger for his craft is clear in the way he speaks about the production and the process of creating it. Given his personal connection with the play, I ask if he’s happy with the show that is about to open “Yes, touch wood! Who knows? You know the next step is the most important, when we put our production in front of an audience for the first time, it’s the last real important piece of the jigsaw.
As a new academic year rolls over, the new Jonathan Munby production is unveiled to the public, and the hunger he recognises in his creative team plainly still comes from within him too. He is so passionate about the play and its themes that it’s hard not to get excited too. This production of Twelfth Night bears his heart and his soul; “This play is absolutely who I am at this moment, in 2014. This is who I am now.”
Twelfth Night runs at the Crucible in Sheffield until 18 October before embarking on a national tour.