While in Verona a few years ago, I was lucky enough to eat Polpette di cavallo at Osteria Sottoriva, the oldest eatery on the medieval arcade that runs along the bank of the Adige river. That city in Veneto, Italy is the romantic setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
One can ponder the balcony and courtyard said to have inspired our William’s tale of feuding families and adolescent co-dependence. Sadly, it’s an architectural fiction (from the 1930s) and a cynical ploy for travellers’ coins. Despite this deceit, it’s a scene of frenzied selfies and chaotic milling from pushy tourists. Truth and accuracy are far less alluring than the illusion of romance.
Did Shakespeare visit Verona? There is no evidence of it, so while Romeo and Juliet remains a seminal work of beauty, one can’t be too precious about the facts, because there are none. It is into this arena of fable and veneration that Rachel Garnet has added a gay spin on Romeo and Juliet. There are elements of the original narrative in Starcrossed, but this is a faithful spin off, an artful re-imagining. Think West Side Story meets 16th Century Queer as Folk.
Rachel Garnet’s text is bold and brilliant, weaving Shakespeare’s original lines with quips and dialogue that could have come from William’s quill. The conceit is seamless, entertaining and thrilling. Garnet’s focus is Mercutio and Tybalt, putting these clashing lesser characters at the centre of the love action.
Connor Delves chews up the role of Mercutio, revelling in the queeny abandon of a reckless wit who puts hedonism and vanity on a pedestal. Tybalt is played by Tommy Sim’aan, who embodies the fury of the rough trade butch who lives by the sword and the words of Our Lord. Gethin Alderman embodies all the other characters, including Romeo, Lord Capulet, Benvolio, Friar Laurence and most hilariously, Juliet. It shouldn’t work, but Alderman nails it with deft comic timing and a huge, knowing wink to the audience.
The ’queering’ of classic texts can fall flat when the rush for diversity and novelty leads to less focus on quality or reason. To my surprise, Starcrossed sailed way above those mishaps, and proved more skilful, provocative and loyal to the spirit of Shakespeare than many productions I’ve seen written by the man himself.
The three players came back for an encore and delivered a song with mandolins and medieval minstrel vibes. In that moment, the historic Wilton’s Music Hall felt alive with Elizabethan revelry. Starcrossed is an homage to Shakespeare that sparks fresh interest in the original text, while cleverly creating a love story that may have happened but couldn’t be written about until today. Shakespeare would be proud.
Starcrossed plays until 25th June, https://www.wiltons.org.uk/whatson/727-starcrossed-
Reviewer: Stewart Who?
Reviewed: 6th June 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★