In 2007, classical actor Edward Petherbridge was due to take on the Everest of roles – King Lear – in a production in Wellington, New Zealand. Two days into rehearsals, however, he suffered a stroke that left him barely able to move, and yet his word-for-word command of the part remained intact. Told by an Idiot’s warm, funny and imaginative two-hander explores Petherbridge’s recovery and his continuing relationship with Lear, revelling in its own theatricality throughout.
On a stage pitched at a rakish angle, the production shifts inventively between fact and fiction as Petherbridge and Paul Hunter conjure Bradford backstreets, backstage cue-calls and physio sessions, constantly meshing and merging with key scenes from Lear, which forms the backdrop to everything. Petherbridge plays the consummate classical actor with aplomb, and Hunter is mesmerizing: exquisitely mercurial, leaping from doctor to director, Romanian cleaner to Irish taxi driver, he’s the perfect foil as well as The Fool, and it’s largely due to the infectious charm and comedic brilliance of his many-faceted performance that the piece can be forgiven much of its self-indulgent luvviness.
So it seems, at times, almost in spite of this aspect – the self-referential asides, in-jokes about Laurence Olivier that will tickle theatre buffs but may well bypass less habituated audience members – that My Perfect Mind manages to be both poignant and honest about ageing and illness, and the precarious nature of recovery. Alongside the withering put-downs and suave delivery, Petherbridge tips convincingly into fragile vulnerability, the tension created by dropped lines magnified by the raked stage and the open trapdoor – the ever-present danger of being pitched into the abyss. The recreation of the storm scene – a mix of Shakespeare’s text and Petherbridge’s treatment – evokes the blasted mental landscape post-stroke, with its loss and grief, fury and frustration.
Other extracts, however, have the whiff of the shoehorn, other than that they provide Petherbridge the opportunity to deliver Lear’s pivotal scenes, and it is the recreations of the actor’s childhood and family that resonate most poignantly. In particular, scenes in which Hunter plays Petherbridge’s mother – who suffered a stroke two days before the actor was born, and went on to walk again despite medical assurances that she never would – are touching in their revelatory intimacy, and perhaps hint at a source of his resolve. ‘Did she recover?’ asks Hunter in doctor-guise. ‘Well,’ says Petherbridge, ‘she always did all the housework.’
It’s moments like this that make the piece sing, coupled with its inspiring depiction of recovery and its hugely appealing portrayal of a genuinely warm and creative collaboration. My Perfect Mind might be too luvvy for some – it certainly seemed to be dividing opinions in the conversations I overheard as we filed out of the Drum – but it’s a lovely peek inside the theatrical mind and life. At one point, while waiting for their cue in The Fantasticks – the 2010 production that could be seen as a forerunner to this double act – Petherbridge talks about putting on a one-man show of Lear at Edinburgh, in which Hunter could play ‘everyone else’. A delicious pause. ‘Well, a two-man show, I suppose…’ he concedes. Priceless.
Read the Exeunt interview with Kathryn Hunter: on Mike Leigh, Mare Ride and My Perfect Mind.