The mainstage at 59E59 promises a bit of experimental theater: there is a rakishly tilted rostrum to which a table and chairs manage to cling, tall white panels, a thunder sheet and oddly shaped and draped objects waiting along the perimeter. A “doctor” in a white coat enters looking both slovenly in sweats and buffoonish in a curly wig and speaking in a comically bad German accent. However, his “patient” is Edward Petherbridge, the distinguished British actor, familiar to audiences in the UK for his illustrious stage and TV career that crossed paths with Laurence Olivier’s National Theater Company and the RSC. Petherbridge’s carriage is regal, his gestures dignified, and his accent slides gracefully across 50 years of enunciating in iambic pentameter.
What he is doing here will take a little time to reveal itself but the show, My Perfect Mind, is indeed a devised piece, of time and setting shifts, fiction, autobiography, mime, live drawing, sound effects, gags, improv and insider jokes whose subject is Petherbridge himself. Its fragmentary nature is in keeping with a major event in the 78 year old actor’s life: a double stroke that left him paralyzed on his right side as he was about to take on the role he had spent his entire career preparing: King Lear.
My Perfect Mind is a direct reference to that play and its themes of aging and loss of physical and mental powers. Petherbridge the “patient” is an elderly actor who thinks he is Lear; the actual Petherbridge seems to have lost nothing of his acuity or charisma, only the chance to play Shakespeare’s most famous king. That is a disappointment that My Perfect Mind seeks to remedy, offering Petherbridge snippets at least of that great role, principally Lear preparing to banish Cordelia and being reunited with her before his death. In these moments, even as unexpected and ephemeral as they are, Petherbridge glows as an actor of immense depth, intelligence and sensitivity.
But he is most surprising in what comprises the rest of the play, which is an autobiographical fantasy that begins with his stroke, two days after arriving in New Zealand on an invitation from The Bacchanals theater in Wellington, and leads him on a flashback that will return him to his childhood in Yorkshire and earliest moments on stage. Audiences unfamiliar with Petherbridge outside of the roles that made him famous, as Lord Peter Whimsey in the BBC adaptation of the Dorothy L. Sayers’ mysteries, and as the original Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, will discover an accomplished artist and ironist with a flair for deadly asides and an unforgiving critic of his own profession. Some of this is contained in his collection of essays, Slim Chances and Unscheduled Appearances (2011), which is also referenced here.
But if the narrative of My Perfect Mind is to be believed, Petherbridge needed a partner like Paul Hunter, co-founder of the company Told by an Idiot, whom he met in a West End production of The Fantastiks, post-stroke, to find a form that would showcase Petherbridge’s talents, while giving him the opportunity to play Lear, somehow or another. While Petherbridge despaired of ever being offered the role again, it was Hunter’s idea to turn that fear on its head, imagining a show about an actor not, in fact, doing Lear at all.
My Perfect Mind is a perfect diamond in the rough, an opportunity to see one of Britain’s greatest living actors in a mesmerizing, funny, whip-smart and thoroughly human performance, a meditation on life and acting – also Lear – directed by another great British actress, Kathryn Hunter (seen lately in New York in Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Peter Brook’s The Valley of Astonishment). It isn’t often these days that a form of entertainment doesn’t make us wish we were in the prime of our youth, but Petherbridge had me regretting more of his years and knowledge, not only for his particular sang-froid in the face of life, but also to understand all of his quips and references (which the older audience at 59E59 didn’t let pass unappreciated). To quote Robert Frost, “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” My Perfect Mind is a tribute to the long, glowing afternoon of Edward Petherbridge.