Shakespeare knew what it took to pen a romantic tragedy when he wrote Romeo and Juliet and hence carefully structured all the ingredients to meet the demands of the genre and create a fulfilling theatrical experience. There are moments that require the willing suspension of disbelief but overall it is a coherent work that delivers what it promises. The same cannot be said for Rachel Garnet’s Starcrossed, at Wilton’s Music Hall.
mish-mash of tragedy and comedy at times approaching farce
Reinterpreting characters from a play or using them as stimulus for a new drama has its precedents; in the Shakesperian world most notably Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which successfully took an existentialist and absurdist approach to devising a tragicomedy. Garnet has not specified a genre, but rather has gone for a stylistically open-ended approach based on the verse ‘Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love’ (Romeo and Juliet 1.1.172) asking, “What if Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet had told a different story?” Well, manifestly it would not have been Romeo and Juliet which Shakespeare, as a victim of his time, probably felt had more appeal and a greater chance of success than a play entitled Mercutio and Tybalt. Garnet’s ‘fresh twist’ redresses his missed opportunity and turns this pair of rivals into ‘the two hours' traffic of our stage’ and transforms them into fated lovers.
Her aim is to reveal ‘the intrigue and passion of a forbidden romance forged in strife, stifled by circumstance and silenced by history’ and in the process ‘reimagining Shakespeare’s verse for the modern age’. This is the play’s UK premiere, having opened at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2019 with Connor Delves as Mercutio, a role he recreates in this London run. He is joined by Tommy Sim'aan as Tybalt and Gethin Alderman as Player, a part worthy of a touring company, in which he takes on all other characters. That is no mean feat and one that requires multiple changes of voice and costumes, as he flits between Capulet, Romeo, Paris, Benvolio and a new character, the beggar Salvatore, and perhaps more. Doubling-up is a well-used device but it wears a bit thin when it reaches the level of sextupling and his last character is the maidenly Juliet who would not be out of place in a pantomime. It gets some laughs as do many exchanges, but also contributes to the general confusion as to the nature of this play.
It opens with the familiar ‘Two houses’ prologue and passages of the original emerge throughout the play but most is newly created or adapted in a manner which at times is clever and imaginative and then conversely irritating and shallow. The early part of the story is familiar but the departure takes place with a kiss given by Mercutio to Tybalt as they leave the masque ball. Delves has no problem in flaunting the gayness of Mercutio. He’s at times flirty, camp, witty, and seductive and always intent upon gaining the love of Tybalt, who suddenly finds himself thrown into a world of doubt and insecurity that challenges his very existence. Sim’aan captures the man’s tormented condition and they both reveal the difficulty and necessary secrecy of being consumed by ‘the love that dare not speak its name’.
Given performances that have considerable accomplishment there is a sense that this should be a success, yet the mish-mash of tragedy and comedy at times approaching farce, the stylised language and usurpation of the original leave it unsatisfying. It’s not helped by the expanse of the Music Hall and the madrigal-style songs they perform which seem unnecessary and are performed so crudely as to add little to the period feel. Ruari Murchison’s dull set of a wooden wall of boards and doors does nothing to add life to the proceedings while the momentary flashes of colour in the costumes barely lift the air of brown banality.
Director Philip Wilson makes maximum use of the ample space and the flight of steps that span the width of the stage, as does fight director Haruka Kuroda when the swords are brandished. It is one of those fights that brings a predictable end to this drawn out tale that seems to know not where it belongs.