Words: Simon Button: pictures:
For Shakespeare reinventors, Romeo & Juliet is the gift that keeps on giving. It has inspired so many reinterpretations, including West Side Story, Baz Luhrmann’s modern-day big screen retelling, and the currently-playing & Juliet musical, to name but three.
Now comes Starcrossed, a play by Rachel Garnet arriving in London just in time for Pride season after its acclaimed FringeNYC premiere in 2018.
Connor Delves and Tommy Sim’aan (Photo: Pamela Raith Photography)
And while & Juliet ponders what would have happened if Shakespeare had decided to let his heroine live, Garnet’s clever conceit is to delve into the Bard’s most tragically romantic of plays in search of a queer love story.
She finds it in the characters of Juliet’s hot-tempered cousin Tybalt and Romeo’s close friend Mercutio, and the result is as clever as it is affecting and as playful as it is passionate.
The hints were always there in Shakespeare’s text, and Harold Perrineau served a sensational drag queen take on Mercutio in Luhrmann’s film. As played by Connor Delves (from the American production) in Garnet’s take on the tale, he is less flamboyant but just as confident in his sexuality, even though the social mores of the time mean he’s asking for trouble.
Connor Delves (Photo: Pamela Raith Photography)
His tryst with Tybalt (Tommy Sim’aan) begins when he plants a smacker on the latter’s lips, much to the macho Capulet’s confusion. Devoutly religious, Tybalt sees it as a test from God but admits to finding Mercutio both loathsome and alluring.
Soon the pair are lovers, albeit behind closed doors, just as star-crossed as Romeo and Juliet themselves in what amounts to the best Shakespearean play Shakespeare himself never wrote.
Tommy Sim’aan and Connor Delves (Photo: Pamela Raith Photography)
It is both a homage to the Bard, with scenes and swathes of dialogue repurposed by Garnet in the most imaginative of ways, as well as a drama that like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead before it sees supporting characters through a new lens.
Staged in the fabulously ramshackle Wilton’s Music Hall, it’s done with minimal props, a couple of swordfights, a few songs, lots of rhyming couplets, and a miraculous performer named Gethin Alderman playing a myriad of parts.
Tommy Sim’aan (Photo: Pamela Raith Photography)
The conceit doesn’t always work; when Alderman doubles for Juliet it’s a comic distraction just as the dramatic tension is really ramping up. And there’s a song as an encore that serves no purpose other than trying to cheer everyone up after a heart-wrenching finale
Said finale is inevitable, given how Mercutio and Tybalt’s fates are sealed by Shakespeare, but the way Garnet gets them there is ingenious. Thanks to the impassioned performances of a puckish Delves and a brooding Sim’aan, her play is a deeply moving look at a love that in the 14th century dare not speak its name.
Starcrossed is at Wilton’s Music Hall, London, until 25 June. For more information visit wiltons.org.uk and for great deals on tickets and shows click here.