‘King Lear is an oak and I’m more of an ash tree, or a silver birch – or privet,’ declares Edward Petherbridge in his silvery, whimsical way. The seventy-six year old actor can smuggle a lot of wry dissidence and bathos through customs with that pit-a-pat mock-distracted, throwaway manner and there's many a fast and delicious aside in My Perfect Mind, a very funny show inspired by a very unfunny real-life setback.
In 2007, Petherbridge, his non-oak status notwithstanding, got to fulfil a long-cherished dream by flying out to Wellington, New Zealand, to begin rehearsals as Shakespeare's mad monarch. Two days into rehearsal, he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralysed and thus ineligible for the production, despite the remarkable fact that he could remember the lines.
Remarkable in a different way is the fact that his mother up in Bradford had a stroke just two days before she gave birth to the future theatrical luminary, veteran of Olivier’s National (where he was the original Guildenstern in Stoppard’s instant classic) and mainstay of the RSC (where he was an indelible Newman Noggs in the Nunn/Caird Nicholas Nickleby).
From the title and the circumstances, you may have thought that My Perfect Mind would be a solo piece in which Petherbridge, now recovered, got his own back on fate, big time, by playing all the roles in the play as Bottom longs to do in the Dream. In fact it's a gently hilarious, intermittently (and understatedly) haunting double-act piece which plays sometimes daft, sometimes pointed variations on the Lear/Fool dynamic and is superbly directed (on a set that has a modish, deliberately inconvenient tilt) by Kathryn Hunter who remarkably has performed both those roles.
Lovely Paul Hunter, from Told by an Idiot, plays a variety of roles from a mad German professor who thinks that Petherbridge is a fraud with Edward Petherbridge Syndrome, to a marigolds-wearing female Romanian Shakespeare Professor who has been reduced to charring for him, to (in an absolutely side-splitting interlude) Laurence Oliver combining the gait of Richard III with the make-up (big brown circle) and words and manner of Othello. The last of these perhaps provides the most fitting occasion for the running gag that aspects of the show are ‘borderline offensive’. And through the luvvie-guying laughter, there is the always the chance of some situation arising that will crystallises a slightly disconcerting connection with Shakespeare’s tragedy and balance the exquisite lightness of the show with a sudden intimation of depth.
Paul Taylor, INDEPENDENT, 9 April 2013
‘And, to deal plainly, I fear I am not in my perfect mind.’ So speaks King Lear towards the end of his monumental journey of self-knowledge that has taken the mad monarch from the highest to the lowest reaches of human experience.
Unsurprisingly, it was an ambition long held and within the grasp of the actor Edward Petherbridge to play Lear, widely regarded as the summit of a classical thespian's career, when, in New Zealand to take on the part in 2007, he was struck down by not one but two strokes.
The miracle is that he is here to tell the tale and, what’s more, to devise – at 76, as he keeps reminding us – such a beguiling, funny, and poignant piece around that fateful day in Wellington. The result allows for a mirroring of sorts of Lear's own painful trajectory while letting Petherbridge seem to improvise and ramble through his past.
A clever sleight of hand, this Drum Theatre Plymouth co-production links the performer with two of our cheekiest, most ingenious and subversive theatrical talents: actor/director Kathryn Hunter, no mean iconoclast herself and one of the few women to have played King Lear, and Told by an Idiot’s Paul Hunter, who plays the Fool, his mum, Laurence Olivier, a char-lady, his childhood dance teacher, a mad brain professor and much else besides.
It works wonders. Name-dropping theatrical anecdotes can, in the wrong hands, feel self-indulgent. That such a situation is avoided here is thanks in part to Paul Hunter’s chameleon, jack-in-the-box persona, never happier than when causing mischief and casting sidelong knowing glances at his audience as if to say ‘you’re not really believing this are you, suckers?’ And, of course, there is Petherbridge himself, stealthily directed by Kathryn Hunter to underline all his distinctive vocal and self-deprecating strengths.
Bradford-born Petherbridge cuts a fine figure. Soft-voiced, elegant, he’s every inch the romantic actor with the profile of a superior gazelle, and as a mainstay of British theatre for over half a century, Petheridge’s CV charts many of its highlights. Chiefly known as a classical actor, having worked with Olivier at the first National Theatre at the Old Vic and been the original Guildenstern in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Petherbridge all but feeds Tom Stoppard’s brilliant conceit into My Perfect Mind as he and Hunter sit on the side of the precariously tilting stage and chat and gossip like Stoppard’s two conspirators passing the time of day.
This madcap mixture of the seemingly spontaneous and improvised – yes, now and again, he does fluff a line or need a cue from the ever-watchful Hunter – gives My Perfect Mind its special pull, while tantalising excerpts from Lear hint at what we have missed.
That, a certain bravery, and an irreverent modesty. The piece finishes appropriately in understatement, Petherbridge telling another anecdote about his forebears and noting that we all end in ‘primeval sludge’, then a final exit to Morecambe & Wise – absurdism, maybe, but at its sweetest and best.
Carole Woddis, THE ARTS DESK, 10 April 2013
The classical actor Edward Petherbridge was due to play the role of a lifetime, King Lear, when he suffered a stroke two days into rehearsal that left him partially paralysed. Bizarrely, however, he was still able to remember all of his lines. This play was painted as a poignant study into that time in the actor’s life: a celebration of courage in the face of adversity. What unfolds is in fact a tongue-in-cheek, self-effacing series of vignettes on Petherbridge’s entire career, including his longstanding dream to play the part of Lear.
Now fully recovered, Petherbridge makes light of his own theatrical failures alongside his successes. The Fantasticks, a panned musical that only ran for four weeks (‘Six, including previews,’ notes Petherbridge lugubriously) is treated just as comically as Petherbridge’s work with Laurence Olivier at the National, or his RSC accomplishments. The time frame is as skewed as Michael Vale’s stage design, the action veering from childhood to learning lines for Lear at Petherbridge’s home in Hampstead, back to his mother pregnant with him, then to his life post-stroke.
Paul Hunter is the composed Fool to Petherbridge’s Lear, assuming a host of characters with comedic intensity including a Romanian cleaning lady, a lunatic German neuroscientist, a New Zealand taxi driver and a particularly luvvie theatre director, with dodgy accents acknowledged as “borderline offensive”. Hunter is funny but not farcical (although he strays close). Both he and Petherbridge earnestly mock the theatre world, parodying the pretentiousness of actors and directors alike. They do this even as they confidently tick a checklist of theatrical tropes: self-deprecating asides, ineffectual mime, using artificial wind machines and sound effects onstage. They effectively demolish the fourth wall, so frequently are their lines addressed to the audience.
Kathryn Hunter’s direction is light-hearted and clever, showing her as a tour de force on stage and off. The production errs more on the side of comedy than it does an emotional reflection on Petherbridge’s stroke – but that is not a disappointment, only a surprise. Petherbridge is dignified, pleasingly modest despite his illustrious career, and far sharper than he makes himself out to be. Shakespeare’s play is interwoven throughout – so really this is all a grand scheme on the part of Petherbridge to finally speak the lines that he knows so well.
Catherine Bennett, THE UPCOMING, 10 April 2013