Swingin’ the Dream – RSC

Swingin the Dream - Royal Shakespeare Company

Shakespeare’s influence on popular culture is inestimable and while his plays are fundamental to the stage, the influence of his words and the often borrowed stories that Shakespeare made his own are felt across film, music and dance. From a ballet versions of The Winter’s Tale – a rich, psychologically complex version of which the Royal Opera House screened last summer with Edward Watson as Leontes – to Hollywood musical adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew (Kiss Me Kate), Romeo and Juliet (West Side Story) and even Hamlet (The Lion King), not to mention the High School movies that reimagined Shakespeare for a younger audience (such as 10 Things I Hate About You), Shakespeare’s understanding of the human condition has allowed his work to be translated into many different forms.

Theatremakers often build on Shakespeare’s plays to create new avenues for his work including the superb Teenage Dick at the Donmar and musicals like & Juliet which opened in 2020 or the Young Vic’s Twelfth Night which reshaped the play into a community-created musical extravaganza that opened Kwame Kwei-Armah’s tenure as Artistic Director. Now, Greg Doran at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has joined forces with Kwei-Armah and Jeffrey Horowitz at Theatre for a New Audience in New York to recreate an all but lost 1939 musical version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a work in progress version of which was streamed live from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford on Saturday.

And the concept couldn’t be more timely; not only with theatres having to dream a little differently to stage productions that raise funds during a third lockdown that will likely take most venues to their one year anniversary of closure, but in also giving renewed life to a musical interpretation of Shakespeare’s play developed and performed by African-American musicians using the jazz music they created which speaks to contemporary political debates about inclusivity while reinforcing the universality of Shakespeare’s themes.

In theory, jazz seems a perfect accompaniment to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a tale of magical mischief, mayhem and romance as a group of lovers defy social convention by escaping to the woods to live freely – the very epitome of jazz and its ethos. But running for just 13 performances in 1939, Swingin’ the Dream flopped quickly before most of the script was destroyed leaving just a handful of pages and some songs. Exactly what happened to this show is open to debate, with only a handful of critical reviews suggesting either this particular marriage of Shakespeare and song was imperfectly balanced, or that the show was perhaps aimed at the wrong audience. Nonetheless the RSC, Young Vic and Theatre for a New Audience have determined to revive and recreate the missing segments with a full production to follow sometime soon.

The 55-minute concert streamed on Saturday, was described as a ‘work-in-progress’ which in practice was a chance to understand what the research team had uncovered about Swingin’ the Dream to date and to hear all of the rediscovered jazz numbers played live on stage. The show, briefly introduced by Doran, Kwei-Armah and Horowitz, was in part a narrated outline of how this familiar story was adapted, characters renamed and their occupations recast to create gender-fluidity such as making Snug the joiner a midwife played by comedian Moms Mabley. This concert version also offers some theatre history, explaining at various points who some of the famous jazz musicians and performers were, the fate of the original show and some of the 1930s context that influenced the decision-making.

Overseen by Music Director Peter Edwards (also the evening’s pianist), an Ensemble of nine readers and singers were tasked with reconstructing the original 1939 production by bringing the ‘ingredients’ together, briefly explaining the overarching story to guide the audience between the songs while announcing the arrival of the various famous faces including Louis Armstrong (Bottom) and Maxine Sullivan (Titania). This narrative structure also described the evolution of a production that had combined acted scenes, musical numbers and dance sections choreographed by Agnes de Mille (niece of legendary film director Cecil), which have also been lost. All of this offers a series of clues as to what a fuller production might look like.

This first look implies that the show was refocused on the Fairies and Rude Mechanicals – played by those well-known musicians – rather than the Lovers and political world of the Court, replacing Theseus with a more generic ‘Governor’ – allowing the production to skip quickly to the arrival of its much anticipated celebrity cast and hastening the drama and humour of their characters. This is, notably, something The Bridge Theatre did with its immersive production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2019 (rescreened by the National Theatre at Home last summer) that found fresh and smart contemporary insight by emphasising the magical and comedy scenarios. It seems clear that for Swingin’ the Dream these characters did and will offer the most fruitful opportunities for entertainment within the show, providing much of the musical inspiration, so we can expect to see far less of the ‘driver’ characters whose romantic entanglements will be at a lower volume.

And fixing more pointedly on these characters will also have consequences for the visual experience of the show and it is clear from this early snippet that most of the scenes take place in the enchanted woodland which offers some interesting opportunities for scene designers who will need to align the magical quality of the forest with the 1930s style of music that should spring naturally from its surroundings. The title song, performed originally by the Dandridge Sisters, is piano-led and performed for the RSC by Mogali Masuku, Georgia Landes, Kemi-Bo Jacobs and Anne Odeke with a girl-group harmony so redolent of the era.

But referred to in the very next segment as ‘The Voodoo Wood’ the scene must also feel intimidating, perhaps even frightening, while the arrival of Oberon and Titania (played originally by Juan Hernandez and Sullivan) must herald a sultry romance as well. Titania sings a memory song about “Moonglow” under which she first met her Fairy King, a moment of pause performed for the RSC by Zara McFarlane that is laden with atmosphere and the breathy, almost painful reminiscence that classic jazz can evoke. To create a set that can simultaneously serve as a place of escape, hope, danger, magic and memory will be an interesting challenge for the design and lighting teams when a complete production is ready for preview.

Some of the best moments in this early concert staging of Swingin’ the Dream are those that allow the audience to imagine what the finished production may look like by drawing wider contextual connections with the cultural forces of the time. Anyone interested in the history of popular culture in the twentieth century will relish the references to the performance styles that were emerging at a time of great creativity. In a nod to the latest craze, the Jitterbug was included in an extensive “dream dance” sequence called Doing the Saboo choreographed by de Mille while the audience is reminded that a Jitterbug dance scene was cut from The Wizard of Oz released in the same year.

Film also gives us context for the arrival of Puck, the last of the major players to assemble, played by Butterfly McQueen who had been disbarred from attending the Gone with the Wind premiere in a Whites-only cinema. These stories are as much a part of the brief experience of Swingin’ the Dream as the residual script, drawing on an era where racial segregation could only be overcome on stage (to a point), where leisure time was spent in dance halls and the golden years of cinema were just beginning as Technicolor offered a very different visual experience to audiences. How faithful the finished show will be to these influences and how they will be incorporated into the production will be one of the most anticipated aspects of early previews.

Anyone hoping to see an advanced frame for the forthcoming production and perhaps an insight into how the finished show will look may have been a little disappointed that this revival is still in its early stages with no new dialogue or scenes to share as yet, but Edwards’s production did offer a more fully-staged finale, a section of music depicting the play-within-a-play that concludes A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe is restaged as a medley of recognisable jazz classics from leading songwriters including sampling from Jeepers Creepers, Blue Moon, Ain’t Misbehaving and She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain performed for the RSC by the full Ensemble that included Alfred Clay, Andrew French, Cornell S. John and Baker Mukasa.

Lasting around 5-minutes, this segment uses a heightened performance style to enhance the comedic incompetence of the Rude Mechanicals as Pyramus and Thisbe converse through Wall, the growls of the masked Lion are answered by the band and a lampshade on a stick doubles as the moon. The cast throw in a couple of contemporary Covid jokes with Lion unable to touch Thisbe’s abandoned scarf must mawl a second version extracted from a infection-safe plastic bag, while Wall refuses to let the classical lovers draw closer than 2 metres from him, jokes we can only hope will no longer be required by the time a final version is ready for its audience.

Nonetheless, there is plenty of evidence in this small scene alone to suggest how Shakespeare’s original text has been repurposed into song without losing the meaning or fluidity of the scene. With this beautiful music already in place but much of the script to recreate, a contemporary adaptation of Swingin’ the Dream may well take note of the 1939 critic who, recognising some imbalance, wanted to jettison some of the dialogue to give more prominence to the jazz. Yet, Shakespeare’s words will still be crucial to creating resonance while pinning the architecture of the new piece together whatever decisions are made about the musical balance or thematic emphasis.

The RSC, Young Vic and Theatre for a New Audience have a difficult but fascinating task ahead in recreating a lost work that honours the original and its biography while developing a version of Shakespeare’s most beloved summer show that offers something to modern audiences. Performed by Edwards on piano, Chris Storr on trumpet, Neil Charles on bass, Mebrakh Haughton-Johnson on clarinet and saxophone as well as
drummer Barrell Jones, the original music by Jimmy Van Heusen is beautiful and with plenty of clues to the narrative and visual aspects of the production left behind, when theatres eventually reopen, Swingin’ the Dream will be just the kind of theatre magic we’ve all been waiting for.

Swingin’ the Dream was streamed live by the RSC on 9 January and a full production in association with the Young Vic and Theatre for a New Audience is in development. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 700 shows. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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