The joky parlour game of naming ten famous Canadians has been given a new lease of life by British theatre's "discovery" of the likes of Robert Lepage and Brad Fraser. Fulham's underrated Turtle Key Arts Centre now joins the vogue with this 1988 play by Toronto-based Ann-Marie MacDonald.
Goodnight Desdemona is a literary take on the fantastic convention in which a hero falls into a work of fiction. Timid spinster scholar Constance Ledbelly is obsessed with a ciphered manuscript which she believes will reveal that Romeo And Juliet and Othello were originally comedies whose gloomy conclusions were fortuitously averted. In the throes of an emotional crisis, she finds herself transported to Othello's Cyprus just in time to unmask Iago's handkerchief plot, then to Verona where she reveals the young lovers' marriage and saves Mercutio's life.
MacDonald comically overturns the standard perception of the two doomed heroines: her Desdemona is a gore-loving amazon, her Juliet romantically obsessed with sex and death. She is also no mean hand at blank verse, delighting in bringing knotty mock-Shakespearan metaphysical conceits hard up against Constance's modern colloquialisms without breaking out of metre. Her low comedy is less assured; when Constance, Romeo and Juliet all cross-dress, the play lurches uncertainly towards Ray Cooney with a doctoral thesis. Moreover, the play's supposed driving notion – Constance's quest to fulfil herself by embracing the Desdemona and Juliet within herself – is simply trite, even when dressed up in alchemical finery.
But if the conclusion is obvious and perfunctory, the journey towards it is a rare joy. Myriam Cyr gives a fine study in comic bewilderment as Constance, and Magdalen Elwes' direction hits exactly the right blend of gravity and levity. MacDonald won't be cited in parlour games yet, but file her name for future reference.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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