Swingin' the Dream, RSC, review: when Louis Armstrong was cast as Bottom as jazz met Shakespeare

Louis Armstrong starred in a very unusual production of A Midsummer Night's Dream - Haywood Magee
Louis Armstrong starred in a very unusual production of A Midsummer Night's Dream - Haywood Magee

How heartening to see – shock! - a company of actors and musicians onstage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford again. Performing Shakespeare? It ain’t necessarily so.

On Saturday, for less than an hour, Swingin’ the Dream revisited a fascinating, little-known chapter of artistic fusion, when the Bard collided with the Jazz Age. In December 1939, Broadway briefly saw an epic version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring an “integrated” company of more than 100. Louis Armstrong, cast as Bottom, shared top billing with “King of Swing” Benny Goodman, whose sextet tried to get the joint jumping.

Hardly any of the script survived; but what's clear is that time-honoured sex-comedy danced cheek-to-cheek with jazz standards and begat a new one, Darn That Dream. Fats Waller and Count Basie contributed music. The set was based on Walt Disney. An enchanted vision of interracial harmony at a time of segregation? Not exactly: the setting was 1890s New Orleans, the casting – viz courtiers and mechanicals/ fairies - fell along racial divides. The critical reaction was cool (“Too much Shakespeare, not enough jitterbug”), the audience stayed away in droves. They were flogging top-price seats at the vast Center Theater for $2 by the end of the run (a paltry 13 shows). It lost a fortune ($100,000).

A triumvirate of RSC chief Greg Doran, Young Vic supremo Kwame Kwei-Armah and Jeffrey Horowitz, of New York’s Theatre for a New Audience, are steering the interrogative act of reconstruction, starting with this “taster” concert (with brief running commentary). Horowitz has startlingly opined that: “Even if tomorrow the script turned up, we wouldn’t be interested in it. … It’s about race, and context, and who’s telling whose story.”

Hmm. Perhaps just relay the remarkable (Netflix-worthy) saga. Race is bound to come into it (the issue diminished at this good-natured try-out by having no white players) but the last thing needed is the pat judgement of history. In the meantime, I hope they release this session as a stream-able album for all to enjoy.

Does the music threaten the comedy? The jury is out as to whether the sole surviving scene, the Pyramus and Thisbe playlet – a medley of Shakespeare’s words sung to the music of Jeepers Creepers! Ain’t Misbehavin’, Blue Moon and the like (arrangement and musical direction by Peter Edwards) - would, as ‘twere, kick ass if fully staged.

But overall the score filled the RST with a fitting air of swooning romance and gentle mischief, the mood set by the opening Spring Song (after Mendelssohn) – offered up by the governor’s gardeners, servants and plantation-workers (here the ensemble of nine singers, accompanied by five-strong band).

Other numbers include the jaunty title track, sung by Titania's close-harmony “pixies”, with tripping piano and wailing clarinet. In “the voodoo wood”, Zara McFarlane’s fairy queen crooned the sultry Moonglow and (with Cornell S John) the love-in-idleness bewitched Darn That Dream (“It haunts me that it won’t come true”), incorporating a sweetly ruminative bass riff. With a lot more artistic delving, what proved a nightmare at the box office 80 years ago might yet on our imaginary forces work a treat.

For further info on the Tales for Winter series visit: rsc.org.uk