Six years ago Edward Petherbridge flew to New Zealand to play King Lear. But two days into rehearsals a stroke paralysed this fit septuagenarian’s right side. The irony was that, just before his birth, his mother also suffered a stroke and achieved recovery with ferocious determination in defiance of contemporary doctors.
The same determination gripped her son seven decades later and he made a good recovery with — to his surprise — the whole of the Lear text still word perfect. But he was unlikely to get the chance again: his first outing was in an awful fey musical called The Fantasticks, which bombed in 2010. Reviews were lousy, but I remember how he stole the show in an hilarious caricature of an ancient actor “proving that, to portray a terrible old ham, you need a serious, un-hammy old pro".
He struck up a friendship with Paul Hunter during that doomed venture, and they cooked up the idea of a two-man show weaving in the stroke story, some Lear speeches and bits of Petherbridge’s early life in Bradford.
I had expected something affecting, a bit solemn and memento mori, even though Kathryn Hunter, who has rattled the cages by playing Lear herself, is director and co-creator. But add to that Petherbridge’s gift for dry self-parody and Paul Hunter’s quirky company Told by an Idiot and it all becomes wilder and funnier.
On a crazily sloping stage, with a trapdoor through which the pair crawl grumbling from time to time, the disjointed, almost hallucinatory format veers and crashes around with deliberate (stroke-like) confusion. Hunter becomes a comedy psychiatrist, doctor, cab driver, crass Kiwi director, Goneril, Cordelia, the Fool, a childhood ballet mistress and — affectingly, despite the hairnet — Petherbridge’s mother. When he first struggles silently to walk along a hospital corridor she crosses silently, doggedly supporting herself with a chair: a role model from long ago.
Hunter also dons a striped blazer as a talent show compere, while the silver-haired, rangily distinguished adult Petherbridge discards Lear and adulthood to become a nine-year-old of long ago, piping a nonsense rhyme. It’s a beguiling oddity, its serious core thrown away in one line amid the foolery. Our hero says that it is “easier to stab at the truth in the theatre than in real life …” And so it is.
Libby Purves, THE TIMES, 6 April 2013
|Photo by Manuel Harlan|
The facts are these: in 2007, Petherbridge travelled to Wellington in New Zealand to fulfil his long-cherished ambition to play Shakespeare's mad monarch. But two days into rehearsal, he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralysed. Remarkably, he was still able to remember every word of King Lear.
Played out on Michael Vale’s tilted stage – a world that’s off-kilter and difficult to physically negotiate – and directed by Kathryn Hunter (who has played both Lear and the Fool), the show mirrors the relationship between the foolish king and his wise fool. Paul Hunter plays a series of fall guys, from a German psychiatrist to a Romanian Shakespeare professor, and Laurence Olivier, who advises that the essential requirement for an actor who plays Lear is a Cordelia who weighs very little. There is a running gag that all these impersonations are “borderline offensive”.
In fact, the entire show gurgles with merriment as it skewers luvvydom, pokes fun at conceptual art and offers tongue-in-cheek advice to theatre-makers on how to treat the audience: “You've got to shove it up their arses before you shove it down their throats.” The theatrical in-jokes would wear thin, were it not for the fact that Petherbridge’s mixture of bravado and frailty brings real heart to the enterprise. So, too, does the untangling of his relationships with his mother, who herself suffered a stroke two days before he was born, and his brother.
It’s a show that invokes the ghosts of Petherbridge’s childhood, the ghosts of all those actors who have played Lear, and the ghost of the performance that Petherbridge never got to give. The result is a funny, moving reminder that however much we aspire to be the king, we are all fools in one way or another.
Lyn Gardner, GUARDIAN, 7 April 2013
|Photo by Manuel Harlan|
My Perfect Mind, if anything, is a homage to the actor’s life and this remarkable man who, after being struck down by one of the most dangerous, debilitating diseases has come back fighting fit. The fact he’s not just come back from this, but written about it with such humour, eccentricity and joy, is what we found ourselves applauding.
The ‘very fond, foolish old man’ speech is deeply touching and shows audience members what New Zealanders missed out on. Long before that, the evening opens with a kind of Germanic prologue as a doctor of some indeterminate type with a terrible wig warns us to anticipate a bad case of Edward Petherbridge Syndrome. In fact, the evening turns into a charming example of that syndrome, showing the veteran actor to good effect, particularly when his perfect comic timing is called upon.
BRITISH THEATRE GUIDE
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