"We're inventing a Rome," said Jonathan Munby over lunch recently, "that looks and feels like contemporary Washington."
Although he was born in Yorkshire, England, and bases his freelance career in London (with frequent forays to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon), the young British director actually has some experience of Washington, having made some of his first marks stateside at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington., where his work has been well received by critics and audiences. Munby's Shakespeare — specifically, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" — also has been seen at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. His latest assignment, Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is his first Chicago engagement
On Wednesday, Munby will make his local debut on Navy Pier, with David Darlow in the title role and, in the role of Marcus Brutus, John Light, a British actor with whom Munby has frequently worked. This will be Light's first American stage appearance. Dion Johnstone, a regular at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, is playing Marc Antony, with the rising Chicago actress Brenda Barrie playing Portia.
Mention a drama of betrayal set in Washington and one's mind typically goes to Republicans and Democrats and political shenanigans. Barbara Gaines' 2009 production of "Macbeth," for example — wherein the Thane of Cawdor and Lady M, resided in a fancy penthouse in downtown Chicago — pondered such themes of leaders sold down the river.
But Munby, who has directed a great deal internationally, including productions of Shakespeare in the Far East, says that party politics, at least in those familiar, American terms, are not necessarily useful when it comes to Shakespeare, whose plays, he argues, are often more relatable in countries far from Britain or the United States. Despite the setting amid the neo-classical architecture of Washington, he says that his production really owes much to his ongoing ruminations about the so-called Arab Spring, as seen blooming in various unstable nations, and to certain repeatable themes when it comes to people rising up and getting rid of their leaders.
"History is cyclical," Munby said. "We really don't learn. People are often better about causes than consequences. They know that they want to get rid of their leader, but they have not necessarily thought much about the aftermath. Often, there have not been conversations about what happens next."
"Julius Caesar," of course, is famous for its depictions, not necessarily flattering depictions, of the regular folks. Ordinary people, Shakespeare suggests, are very easily manipulated. This is, Munby said, a big part of the focus of his production. "What does it do to people when there is a dead body on display in public?" he asked, referencing various recordings on YouTube of scenes of violent revolution (or attempted revolution, or maybe just attempted assassination). Whether the setting was Bulgaria or Libya, the ordinary members of the public invariably show up in those clips of real-life violence, usually shouting or pushing or otherwise behaving not so much as an individual but as a member of a cruel mob.
"The act of killing someone," Munby said, "can be cathartic."
"Julius Caesar" was first seen at the Globe Theatre in London in 1599 — just a few years before Shakespeare wrote his great tragic works. Brutus, Munby argued, while talking up his imported British actor (who had to get special permission from the Actor's Equity Association to appear in a nonprofit production in Chicago), is a "prototypical Hamlet."
"John has all of those qualities," Munby said. "He is a man who asks questions."
Interestingly enough, although Light is a British actor in a British play directed by a British director, he will be playing Brutus as an American. With blood on his hands.
When: Through March 24
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier
Tickets: $48-$78 at 312-595-5600 and chicagoshakes.com