Max Webster’s production of Shakespeare’s comedy sets out with a clear agenda. Duke Frederick’s court, with its plastic rubbish, fast-food outlets and showbiz wrestling, represents urban pollution. The Forest of Arden, while subject to the extremities of climate change, is a place of relaxed freedom, hillbilly music and closeness to nature. Webster tends to bang his points home: the crudity of the court is emphasised by a sneering reference to the “Forest of Hard-On” and Shakespeare’s subtle critique of the pastoral convention gets submerged. But this is still a show with its heart in the right place.
Ultimately this is a play about the exhilarating madness of love and that comes across in the central performances. Olivia Vinall’s Rosalind is visibly poleaxed by her first sight of Orlando, and when she later tells us she is “fathom-deep in love” we totally believe her. It’s a restlessly vivacious performance that will be even better when Vinall no longer feels the need to colour every line. She has an unusually strong Orlando in Edward Hogg, who turns a character that sometimes seems like a naive dupe into a tortured, anguished figure who enters into the mock-wooing scenes with a grudging tolerance.
There are oddities in the production, such as the notion that Orlando’s brother is blind when he gets to the forest (was he tortured by the bad Duke or mauled by a lioness?). In compensation, Maureen Beattie totally justifies the gender-switch of Jaques by playing her as a caustic, moralising Scot with a sincere concern for animal rights.
Danny Kirrane also takes the tedium out of Touchstone – “Who would endure such humour from anyone but Shakespeare?” asked Shaw – by making him a closet rocker enjoying congress in a portable tent with Amy Booth-Steel’s jovially voracious Audrey. There is good support from Me’sha Bryan as a melodious Amiens and from Simon Armstrong as the ducal siblings and, even if Webster is over-inclined to find “sermons in stones”, the production’s pleasures outweigh its preachiness.
• At Open air theatre, Regent’s Park, London, until 28 July.