Starcrossed ★★★★

Starcrossed uncovers a different pair of secret lovers from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in a clever, queer retelling at Wiltons.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the story of two young lovers hiding their relationship from their warring families, is one that has been reframed many times. It has been turned into ballet (Prokofiev’s being the most famous), became an opera (Gounod’s the best known), formed the basis of a one of the most famous musical theatre works (West Side Story), a contemporary movie (Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet) and a jukebox musical (& Juliet).
It has become the definitive tale of forbidden love set against the backdrop of a restlessly hostile world and is a drama of archetypes which easily affords retelling. Which is exactly what Rachel Garnet’s Starcrossed does. Except while the events of Romeo and Juliet play out in the background, Verona has two new secret lovers in the form of Mercutio and Tybalt in this deft queering of the story.
All photos by Pamela Raith Photography

Given Garnet’s refusal to change any of the Bard’s framework, but instead to work her play around it, Starcrossed is an intriguing conceit. Not least because we know “some consequence yet hanging in the stars” will inevitably lead to the “vile forfeit of untimely death” in the form of a sword fight between Tybalt and Mercutio which, thanks to the interference of Romeo, will leave them both dead. 

Starcrossed begins its story with the party-loving Mercutio persuading Romeo to stop moping around with his unrequited love for Rosaline and to sneak in disguise into a masquerade ball at the Capulets. Of course the plan goes awry when the fiery Tybalt discovers a drunken Mercutio, a man too close to the sworn enemy, in the grounds. As a diversionary tactic to avoid Romeo’s discovery, Mercutio kisses Tybalt. Unexpectedly, Tybalt is haunted by this and Mercutio’s power over him. Knowing that society will not accept their relationship, they forge a series of secret assignations as their love grows.

Connor Delves as Mercutio

Starcrossed is blessed with an outstanding cast of three superb actors.

Connor Delves is an engaging, flirty, epicurean Mercutio. He’s a funny, quick-witted social butterfly who lives for the moment. Having played the role in its North American premiere in 2018, Delves mines the role for just the right level of charm and flamboyance while blithely setting the wheels in motion for a love affair that will change him.

By contrast, the earnest, aggressive Tybalt has a short fuse and is quick to anger in his fiercely loyalty to the Capulets. At least until he falls in love with Mercutio. Tommy Sim’aan delivers an outstanding, affecting performance which gently reveals what made Tybalt so filled with anger and vengeance. Sim’aan truly engages the audience as he forgoes Verona’s ancient grudge in favour of transformative, if forbidden love. 

Tommy Sim’aan as Tybalt

Delves and Sim’aan strike a great partnership. Two opposite poles attracting. In many ways, their characters’ queer love story is a bolder one than Romeo and Juliet’s in that as adults, they are making the choice to pursue their forbidden love regardless of the consequences. The two actors convey their defiant, gay relationship, continued against all odds, as both passionate and tender in equal measure. In short, they are truly star-crossed lovers. 

We know from As You Like It that Shakespeare not only claimed “All’s the world is a stage” but also maintained “And one man in his time plays many parts”. Well this time that man is Gethin Alderman. Called ‘The Player’ in the programme, Alderman superbly plays all the other dramatis personae. From Benvolio to Friar Lawrence, from Romeo to Lord Capulet, The Recs counted eight separate roles (and there might have been more). Kudos both to Alderman’s excellent comic timing and his dexterous quick transformations from one character to the next as the scene requires. However, possibly his highlight comes with a truly sinister moment. As the beggar, Salvatore, he wilfully determines to destroy his son’s happiness by revealing Tybalt’s clandestine life to the highest bidder. Bellowing “Secrets for sale”, his face contorted with malice, it’s a dark breaking of familial bonds worthy of Lear.

Gethin Alderman as Salvatore

Occasionally the fun of watching Alderman’s multiple character interpretations undercuts the seriousness of a scene. When Lord Capulet is addressing Tybalt demanding loyalty for naming him as heir at the same time as Lord Montague is haranguing Mercutio for associating with his family’s enemies, Alderman plays both roles with different robes on each shoulder, turning back and forth to deliver the lines of each. The effect is a comic one whereas this is the vital turning point in the drama where the jeopardy for the two lovers increases. It’s a rare tonal misstep.

Garnet’s script, which repurposes much of Shakespeare’s verse fairly seamlessly alongside her own, is skillful and political. She sets about restoring the fractured history that would see LGBT love stories, that were happening in the fourteenth century alongside their heterosexual counterparts, erased by prejudice. Occasionally, she wears this purpose on her sleeve a little too heartily: when the lovers wonder if things might be easier in 500 years time, it feels a little too on the nose. 

Where Starcrossed succeeds is in putting a passionate gay love story centre stage. It’s sincere, funny, sexy and important. When the tragedy of Tybalt and his Mercutio hits, it has as much (if not more) resonance as the Shakespearean denouement. Beautifully acted and cleverly written, Starcrossed at Wilton’s Music Hall is joyous addition to Pride Month. 

Starcrossed, an unexpected Shakespearean spin off replete with sword fighting, sweet songs and a beautiful gay love story, gets hearty and heartbreaking 4 stars ☆☆☆☆ from The Recs

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Starcrossed by Rachel Garnet plays at Wilton's Music Hall until

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