In the woodland setting of the Watermill Theatre's garden there is no doubt that the latest production from artistic director Paul Hart is a bucolic delight. But alongside the celebratory inclusivity of sharing the bosky space with the actor/musicians and singing along to the folksy sound of their stunning blend of voices, Hart and his company find a message that makes Shakespeare's comedy urgently relevant today. Up front in the programme Hart sets out his passionate commitment to sustainability. Also eye-catching in the programme's creative team page, alongside "adaptation by Yolanda Mercy", is the credit "Climate Justice and Sustainability Consultant Dan de la Motte". He also gets a page to explain how the play written in the 16th century "may help us in radically reimagining what society should be like". He suggests that Rosalind and Orlando's escape from the cruelty of the court to the "sanctuary" of the forest, like lockdown, gives them "the time and space to explore and discover different ways of loving and living, collaboration and partnership".
But don't get the idea that this passionate commitment edges the evening into preachiness. You would have to read designer Katy Lias' programme note to realise that her attractive set framed by apparently rustic window frames does indeed incorporate elements of scenery and props from previous Watermill productions. So too, she says, do the costumes that have just the right contrast between uptight three-piece city slicker suits for Duke Frederick's court and a relaxed, practical ‘preloved' look for Duke Senior's alternative court in the Forest of Arden.
The versatile, multi-talented cast of actor/musicians have no problem sustaining the joy and romance. Alongside those transformative opportunities there for the taking in the Forest of Arden, Watermill stalwart Jamie Satterthwaite finds the resonance in Duke Senior's regret and reservation that his followers' need to eat means the deer native to the forest "have their round haunches gored" by his men.
The ten-strong cast play "many parts", as Emma Manton's powerfully assertive Jaques has it. Following in the Watermill's tradition of casting a funny woman as Bottom (Victoria Blunt and Laurin Redding), Emma Barclay makes an exuberant Touchstone in a succession of fantastical outfits. There is a real affinity between the dark humour of Manton's Jaques and the fun of Barclay's Touchstone, which builds beautifully on the delight in Jaques' exclamation "A fool, a fool, I met a fool in the forest!" Satterthwaite makes a warm and thoughtful Duke Senior. Complete with binoculars, channelling David Attenborough he pursues his fascination with the woodland fauna.
At the heart of the play are the wonderful variety of individuals who find their partners amongst the boscage. Rosalind is one of Shakespeare's most eloquent and resourceful heroines. She rises to the challenge of donning male attire and protecting her best friend and cousin Celia, only to find herself trapped in this disguise face to face with Orlando, the young man she has fallen for, who requites her love with spades. The artful way she finds to enjoy time with him by suggesting she will cure him of a passion that has him posting ardent rhymes on the forest trees, provides some of the play's finest humour. Katherine Jack's beautifully calibrated and intelligent performance, perfectly partnered with Ned Rudkins-Stow's eloquent, charismatic and physical turn, certainly find every bit of the funny – and the pathos – in their strange situation.
Chanelle Modi's open and affectionate Celia and Yazdan Qafouri as Oliver, the erstwhile villainous older brother of Orlando, who finds repentance, redemption and true love in the forest, provide the ideal complement to the central pairing of Rosalind and Orlando.
Ami Okumura Jones has plenty of fun with Phebe, the country wench who rejects her swain Silvius to fall big time for Ganymede, the handsome shepherd boy who is actually Rosalind in disguise. Omar Baroud, a dark and villainous Duke Frederick in the opening scenes, clearly relishes the chance for light relief as lovelorn Silvius.
Tom Sowinski gets to play the "good old" men, Orlando's faithful servant Adam and Corin the wise old forest shepherd. Entirely sympathetic in both roles, he moonlights as musical director, so responsible for the glorious harmonies and rhythms of voice and instruments that suffuse the production.
"Tom's" are a theme in the creative team, for the gentle forest lighting as dusk approaches and the subtle sound balance that enables the audience to hear outdoors are courtesy of lighting designer Tom White and sound designer Tom Marshall.
To Barclay's Touchstone also falls the role of puppeteer, for keeping the cast small in Mercy's paring down of the plot means that Touchstone does not get to steal the "sluttish" Audrey from her yokel admirer William. Instead we are treated to Touchstone's reimagining of Punch and Judy with stick puppets in the "Audrey and William Show".
Add the inclusivity of folk music giving a spine-tingling vibe to numbers including Taylor Swift's "You Belong with Me" and The War and Treaty's blend of gospel and country "Set My Soul on Fire"; and all the delight of sharing The Beach Boys "God Only Knows" with the audience, and you have a perfect summer evening's entertainment.
Rosalind's epitaph that ends the play has been rewritten "for 2021" by Mercy to reinforce the production's ecological message with an urgent plea on behalf of the "buds and blooms and bluebirds" of the forest – aka our planet. As the cast bound on, clad in T-shirts with appropriate slogans, for a robust finale championing sustainability, it's easy to embrace the nudge theory and marvel at how Hart and his company have found the extraordinary, even urgent, contemporary resonance of Shakespeare – without losing the play's magic and humour in this haunting production.