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A Midsummer Night’s Dream review at Racks Close, Guildford – ‘knockabout comedy’

Matt Pinches and Sarah Gobran in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo: Guildford Shakespeare Company Matt Pinches and Sarah Gobran in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo: Guildford Shakespeare Company
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Guildford Shakespeare Company’s 12th open-air season begins with a sunny, swinging sixties take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This site-responsive show is staged in the former chalk quarry Racks Close, whose sylvan wilderness is an ideal location for this semi-promenade performance transposed from a wood near Athens to Guildford.

Marking the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, Lotte Wakeham’s slimmed-down production hints at intergenerational conflict, as the four young lovers break free from the repressive confines of court as they escape to a natural environment to find themselves. Like the local factory-worker mechanicals getting away to rehearse their play, they are caught up in the shenanigans of the spirit other world where hippiedom rules.

The concept of a rebellious counter-culture could have been taken further with love-in-idleness as a hallucinogenic drug in a psychedelic trip, but apart from some purple lighting effects this is more mini skirts and paisley shirts than flower power and taboo-breaking, backed by a catchy 1960s soundtrack.

The show is short on fairies and plays down the sense of the magical, or indeed the darker side of nature, in favour of infectious humour and feel-good optimism. The lovers’ romantic mix-ups are entertainingly presented as a rite of passage, and the mechanicals’ Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-a-play is full of nicely staged visual gags and knockabout comedy.

The doubling cast differentiate their characters well. Sarah Gobran plays Titania with feisty independence, though her disenchanted Hippolyta is denied a back story. Owen Oakeshott is almost John Cleese-like in his absurd portrayal of the patriarchal Theseus, while his sunglass-wearing, guitar-carrying Oberon chills out as a hippie poser. And Matt Pinches gets plenty of laughs in a highly physical performance as a genially enthusiastic Bottom who is not afraid to make an ass of himself.

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Shakespeare’s comedy is given a sunny 1960s treatment