Playing the lead in Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) was a two-decades-long dream for Margo MacDonald. Enraptured with the play since seeing the 1990 touring version as a first-year University of Ottawa student, she’d always hoped the role would someday be hers. That’s why it was so disappointing to walk out of the audition for the current Great Canadian Theatre Company production last summer thoroughly convinced she’d blown it.
“Auditioning is always nerve-wracking and even more so when you’re going for a part you want so badly,” MacDonald says. “The show had a huge influence on me in my early days, and I’d always wanted to play Constance. But I didn’t feel like I did a great job on the first reading. I was panicking and judging myself the whole way through. A week later they called and offered me the part.”
Author Ann-Marie MacDonald’s feminist rethinking of Shakespeare follows the exploits of a PhD candidate caught under an academic glass ceiling who sets out to prove the Bard’s greatest tragedies were actually comedies. After learning that the position she wanted at Oxford University has been offered to another professor, Constance finds herself accidently transported into the middle of both Othello and Romeo and Juliet, where she rearranges both plots and finds herself in the process.
“I was already a big fan of Shakespeare when I saw the play, but it really changed the way I thought about his writing,” MacDonald says. “It opened up this idea that we don’t just have to worship him because he’s great. We can also poke fun at the mediocre parts while being respectful at the same time.”
In the more than 40 productions staged since its 1988 Toronto premiere, numerous actors (including the author herself) have taken a stab at the lead. Stepping into a part with so much history can be intimidating, but MacDonald seems unfazed by donning a mantle worn by so many others.
“I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare, so I have the experience of taking on iconic roles that audiences may have seen done many times,” she says. “The only way to approach it is to not worry about how it’s been done before and focus on why you were cast and what the director thought you could bring to the role that was unique.”
MacDonald found an easy parallel in her own life for accessing her character’s struggle for self-actualization: coming out as queer in a deeply religious family. Though she was already struggling with religion as a teen, it wasn’t until her early 20s she was able to leave the church.
“At the end of the play we find Constance at the point where she’s just about to embrace herself for who she is, and we know she’s going somewhere exciting in her life,” MacDonald says. “Having spent half my life in the church, I can understand that process of having your mind opened and realizing there is another way to think of yourself and your purpose in the world.”