ON THE FRINGE: Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet); Grace Theatre at the Latchmere, London

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The Independent Culture
Playing around with Shakespeare is so popular these days; it could almost become an Olympic event. Everyone from the Reduced Shakespeare Company to Al Pacino is flexing their muscles in this sport.

The latest to caper with the Bard is the Totally Portable Theatre Company, which is mounting a production of Canadian writer Ann-Marie MacDonald's Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). The play centres on Constance Ledbelly, a repressed Shakespeare scholar in a backwater Canadian university "whose definition of fun is a run of `ibids' in an essay". She has happened upon an old manuscript which she believes proves that both Othello and Romeo and Juliet were based on long-lost comedies. As she reads from the manuscript, the stage-lights start to flash and she is plonked, as if by Star Trek's transporter, slap-bang in the middle of each play in turn.

Sloughing off her red bobble-hat and drab grey worsted jacket with leather elbow-patches, Constance finds herself the object of veneration and love as she reads the characters' minds. She also takes on an uncanny ability to speak in perfect iambic pentameters (neatly dreamt up by MacDonald).

In Othello's Cyprus, she exposes Iago's machinations and laments, "I've turned Shakespeare's Othello into a farce." While in Verona, she has to fight off the amorous advances of both Romeo and Juliet, bored of each other's company once Constance has averted their tragic demise. Attempting to push away the lustful Romeo, Constance protests, "I know your family, they'd be very upset."

Goodnight Desdemona mines a rich vein of humour in the gap between the Shakespearean characters' knowledge and Constance's. She compliments Juliet by telling her, "I suspect that you're beyond compare."

The actors in Michael Cowie's spirited production go at it with admirable gusto. Alisa Modet, for instance, has a whale of a time as a war-crazed Desdemona, bringing Constance the severed head of an enemy as a token of respect. It is Helen Fittock's impressive Constance, though, who holds everything together. She captures precisely the character's sense of wielding power with the utmost reluctance. When she lands up in Verona, she gingerly pokes her head through the back-curtain and rolls her eyes resignedly as she espies Tybalt and Mercutio indulging in a macho sword-fight.

For all the cast's enthusiasm, however, Goodnight Desdemona remains a confusing play. It has more plots than a rural estate agent. The conclusion - where a ghostly Yorick appears as a muse to Constance, and Desdemona pops out from beneath Juliet's bed - is over-ambitious. Boring concepts like structure and comprehensibility have apparently been sacrificed at the more glamorous altar of imagination. MacDonald's ideas charge around the text like a herd of cattle on the hoof. They need someone to lasso them and put them back in the corral.

At the Grace Theatre, London SW11 (0171-223 3549) to 3 Aug; at the Garage Theatre, Edinburgh (0131-229 7941), 10-23 Aug

James Rampton