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Get a flavour of RSC's new jazz-inspired Midsummer Night's Dream this weekend

The first item on the RSC programme in 2021 is a juicy one: a concert of work in progress from Swingin’ The Dream, a jazz-infused production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which ran on Broadway in 1939, and which is being livestreamed on Saturday at 7pm. Artistic director Gregory Doran calls from a riverside dressing room to tell Gill Sutherland about it and the mood at the theatre.

How is it in the building? Is it a bit sad?

It looks like a puppy that you’ve left at home for a rather long time during the day and it’s rather bleary-eyed but very, very pleased to see you. It’s just lovely to see everyone even though we are all wearing masks and are socially distanced. We’ve appointed among ourselves our own Covid marshals, because you do forget. You want to go and hug people but you can’t.You drop your guard at the end of the show and you go, “Hey, we just did a show!” and you sort of want to take a selfie but you can’t! It is very challenging. But it is great to be back and see each other.

How are audiences reacting to live performances online?

It’s really interesting because they do want a live event. When we did Talking Shakespeare it was extraordinary to see the number of people that could have seen a recording of it later but watched it live because they could get the sense that you are sitting in the room with me and Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, or whoever, and just watching us have a chat. We are appreciating liveness in a different way and I think all the feedback we are getting from our audience research is that people want it live.

On to Swingin’ The Dream – so it’s a work in progress. Is there an end goal?

There is. It actually came about when I was preparing for 2016 when we did Shakespeare Live from the RSC. I was looking at Shakespeare as he appears in jazz and ballet. I thought I knew all the Shakespeare-related musicals pretty much. But I hadn’t even heard of half of them, and one that I had never come across was Swingin’ The Dream, which was a 1939 Broadway musical with Louis Armstrong as Bottom!

Louis Armstrong as Bottom with the Dandridge Sisters as Titania's fairies in the 1939 Broadway production of Swingin' The Dream. (43766218)
Louis Armstrong as Bottom with the Dandridge Sisters as Titania's fairies in the 1939 Broadway production of Swingin' The Dream. (43766218)

Armstrong as Bottom – wow, that’s incredible!

They also had Maxine Sullivan, who was the Billie Holiday of her day, as Titania, and the Dandridge Sisters, who were the African-American equivalent of the Andrew Sisters, they were Titania’s pixies.

Also in the cast was Butterfly McQueen, who had just finished filming Gone With the Wind, in which she played Prissy the maid, and she played Puck.

They had designs by Walt Disney... Everything was going for this show.

It’s weird it hasn’t been more talked about. Why is that?

It disappeared off the face of this earth. Nobody had a copy of it because it was a spectacular flop.

It’s as if Broadway and Americans are allergic to failure. That became more and more interesting to me.

So we won’t be doing the musical Swingin’ The Dream but a play with music about the musical essentially. If the script did appear now I wouldn’t want to do it.

What’s interesting to me is what the reviews said. One of them said “too much Shakespeare, not enough jitterbug”.

It’s just a lovely sense of, here is a fusion of black talent and Shakespeare and jazz.

That’s why we have the tripartite collaboration – Theatre for a New Audience in New York has the American part, RSC has the Shakespeare skills, and the Young Vic’s Kwame Kwei-Armah is directing it.

So how have you set about working on it with so few clues?

I was completely thrilled to discover three pages of text that covers Pyramus and Thisbe. They did it as a jazz opera medley. So we workshopped that and it was hilarious.

The central song is a song called Darn That Dream, which became a jazz standard, and it sort of sums up the whole – it sort of says it could have happened but it didn’t and it dissolved.

For me, that’s what the show’s about – it’s important to dream but sometimes dreams don’t come true.

The event on the 9th is a work in progress – optimistically speaking, when might we see the whole thing performed as a full production?

So the plan is that once we have the Swan back, we will run it alongside the next time we do A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and that production will be our next big digital and technological fusion.

The 400th anniversary of the First Folio is in 2023 and I’m determined to make it, like we did with 2016, a milestone in the life of the company.

I want it to show who we are post-Covid and who we are moving forward.

So if we haven’t done it before then, we’ll do it 22-23.

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