Tag Archives: Jonathan Munby

“The Merchant of Venice” at Shakespeare’s Globe

Jonathan Munby’s new production will be memorable alone for marking Jonathan Pryce’s magnificent debut at Shakespeare’s Globe. Not to belittle Pryce’s achievement – it would have been a surprise if he wasn’t right for the role – the bigger story is that the whole production is of a consistently high standard, making it one of the best I’ve seen at the venue.

Munby embraces the play’s sometimes off-putting mix of comedy and tragedy. The broad humour that does so well at the Globe is present, most notably in Stefan Adegbola’s servant, Launcelot, going down a storm by pulling audience members on to the stage. And there are particularly fine comic performances from Dorothea Myer-Bennett and David Sturzaker, as Nerissa and Gratiano.

At the heart of it all are those most concerned with the theme of justice: the woman who masquerades as a judge, Rachel Pickup as a glacial Portia, and Dominic Mafham as the titular merchant Antonio, imperiled by the word of the law. These parts anchor the show and reveal the structure of Munby’s grasp.

As for the tragedy, no excuses are made for the text’s anti-Semitism, displayed in all its cruelty and violence. Spat at and assaulted, Pryce plays it straight, which all the more demands our attention. He is joined onstage by his own daughter Phoebe Pryce, playing Shylock’s child Jessica, who is full of passion and seemingly born for the role. Culminating in a heart-rending scene as she sings while her father is forced to be baptised, it’s a fine finale that confirms how brave this production is.

Until 7 June 2015


Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Antony and Cleopatra” at Shakespeare’s Globe

Eve Best has made a triumphant return to Shakespeare’s Globe. Following her fine directorial debut in 2013, she now takes the lead in Antony and Cleopatra. This accessible production, directed by Jonathan Munby, tells Shakespeare’s tale of love and war with the utmost clarity.

A pirate queen, full of fight, with a wicked sense of humour, Best’s Cleopatra displays the character’s fabled “infinite variety” and knows how to play the crowd in all moods. She is joined by Clive Wood, who makes the perfect “old ruffian” Antony, giving a studied performance that’s crafted to fill you with unease – he’s both too much the politician and too passionate to trust, degenerating into little more than a bully.

The air of luxury Munby establishes makes for a slow start, and the production has moments that might be speedier. Much time, for example, is given to Phil Daniels’ Enobarbus, though it has to be admitted he gives a remarkably subtle performance. The battle scenes are handled efficiently, though, and transitions between scenes, with characters overlapping each other, create some intriguing resonances.

There’s some great use of music and the humour in the text is sustained throughout. Several smaller roles are given their due, creating a world that feels populous and convincing. Jolyon Coy stands out as the “boy Caesar” and Sirine Saba works hard as Cleopatra’s attendant. The finale is testament to how captivating Best’s performance becomes, particularly in her poignant appeals to the women in the audience.

All this for a production dogged by troubles. Christopher Saul is a last-minute substitute who bravely performed with the text last night. Wood has been ill, missing several preview shows, while Best sports a bandaged ankle. But I couldn’t see their performances marred in the slightest. Let’s be thankful for the old adage that the show must go on. This is an evening full of affirmation for the theatre generally and this cast in particular, with a show that, like its star, is “a wonderful piece of work”.

Until 24 August 2014


Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 30 May 2014 for The London Magazine

“A Number” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

How would you feel if you discovered you had been cloned? Caryl Churchill’s A Number asks this question, focusing on the philosophy of identity, and twisting, like a strand of DNA, between the reactions of children who discover they are clones and the motives of a parent who allowed it to happen.

Jonathan Munby’s minimalist production strips the less than hour-long play down to its essentials, with two protagonists facing each other, strategically placed, and in constant confrontation. Paul Wills’ design invokes the science fiction motif.

The Menier has achieved the considerable coup of securing Timothy West and his son Samuel to work on the play again – they first appeared in it in Sheffield a decade ago. Both performances are impeccable. West senior skilfully reveals his character’s darker side while junior gets to play three cloned versions of himself with terrific subtlety.

The Wests deal with the staccato writing and complex rhythms expertly but the text seems forced and becomes annoying. While you can’t fault Churchill’s ambition or doubt her vigour, there simply isn’t enough of this play to make it work. With so much to develop, the final scene disappoints.

Leaving the audience wanting more seems a risky strategy for a playwright. The early finish has its benefits – you will have plenty to discuss in the Menier’s lovely bar – but it does little justice to the talent involved in this production that they ultimately only serve as the opening speakers in a barroom episode of The Moral Maze.

Until 5 November 2010


Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 5 October 2010 for The London Magazine

“The Prince of Homburg” at the Donmar Warehouse

The Donmar’s production of Heinrich von Kleist’s The Prince of Homburg is another attempt to provide London audiences with the chance to see a classic we should all be more familiar with. Written just before the author’s death in 1811, the play is a mixture of romance and military drama, pitting the emotions of its hero with his sense of honour.

The Prince is the kind of dreaming philosopher that director Jonathan Munby deals well with. Munby’s last production at the Donmar, Life is a Dream, shared concerns about the failings of human perception and this production has a similar ethereal feel. But the Prince is also a military leader and when he makes a mistake in battle and is court marshalled, he comes to believe that he should pay for his error with his life. A modern audience is bound to have problems finding this believable. His journey to the decision is too brief to dispel these doubts and Dennis Kelly’s new version bizarrely encourages them.

The problem of motivation seems shared by the cast as well. Charlie Cox as the Prince and Sonya Cassidy as his love interest do well to establish a magnetic relationship, but the emotions surrounding the Prince’s imprisonment and attempts to save, then sacrifice him for the cause of army discipline, are unbelievable. Cox is a fine hero, he ‘does’ dignity well, but you can’t help thinking he is a fool.

Cox gets your sympathy (which is the last thing the character should have) especially given who he is up against – the Elector Frederick in the form of Ian McDiarmid. Playing an evil emperor is bread and butter to McDiarmid (he is the bad guy in the Star Wars films) but he really does excel at it. Bringing every subtlety out of the character he adds humour as well as chilling efficiency to the role. You never doubt him. He is full of frustrations and fears as well as being the consummate politician.

The Prince of Homburg is a classy affair with a stylish design from Angela Davies and a strong supporting cast that often seems wasted. McDiarmid alone makes this production worth seeing. His performance is one of those masterclass affairs that occur far less frequently than we are led to believe. Just don’t expect to get very much else from the evening.

Until 4 September 2010


Written 2 August 2010 for The London Magazine