My Perfect Mind, Young Vic

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The stage for Told by an Idiot’s latest show is decidedly wonky. Michael Vale’s white platform design is raised at one side, the other side sloping dangerously downwards; the props that sit on it valiantly fight against gravity, occasionally losing and sliding helplessly down the smooth surface. It’s an off-kilter setting for an off-kilter show, a cheeky nod to the zaniness and confusion to come. It also creates an inbuilt sense of battle, of upward struggle. The performers must always climb uphill or come tumbling down.

The defiant yet playful struggle in question is that of actor Edward Petherbridge, who in 2007 suffered a severe stroke just two days into rehearsals for a production of King Lear in New Zealand. What he has constructed together with Told by an Idiot and presented on stage with co-performer Paul Hunter is a recovery of sorts, though it’s never quite that simple. Instead, this is a piece of theatre as complex, messy and densely layered as the mind itself, jumping frenetically from memory to fantasy to present thought, barely pausing to take a breath. The result is a mad blend of stream of consciousness and wacky comedy, a gloriously surreal journey through Petherbridge’s experience that ends up being as much about theatre as it is about the human mind.

With an acting career spanning more than half a century, including a stint in Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company in the 1960s, it’s somewhat inevitable that an excavation of Petherbridge’s mind will be teeming with theatrical anecdotes. Olivier himself makes regular, hilarious cameos, while other names that Petherbridge drops with relish include Noel Coward and Ian McKellen. More than just a series of wistful showbiz reminiscences, however, My Perfect Mind also unpicks the very concept of drama, staging a constant slippage between several different overlapping fictions and realities. In this sense, the workings of theatre reflect the workings of the mind; we, like the performers, are always negotiating a number of different identities, always treading a delicate line between truth and imagination, with the two sometimes indistinguishable.

The most prominent of the fictions being juggled is King Lear, the text of which is studded throughout the show that Petherbridge, Hunter and director Kathryn Hunter have pieced together through devising and improvisation. This element of the piece is tragic in more than the Shakespearean sense, as we’re frequently confronted with the spectacle of a man snatching at a role that was cruelly wrenched away from him. The show is both Petherbridge’s chance to finally be Lear – at times with mournful, compelling commitment – and his poignant admission that this dream role will most likely continue to elude him. Instead he’s offered a fool’s version of Lear, in which the tears are just as likely to be induced by laughter as sadness.

And it is very funny. Told by an Idiot’s distinctive brand of humour is madcap and chaotic – all wigs and clowning and racing around the stage. On paper, it doesn’t sound like a neat fit with classical actor Petherbridge, but in practice it works beautifully. He and Hunter make a fantastic if unlikely double act, Petherbridge veering between unabashed, self-mocking luvviness and wearily sardonic asides, while Hunter is every inch the witty, mischievous fool, rapidly switching roles to play all the other figures populating Petherbridge’s memories. It’s rough around the edges, revelling in its own thrown together quality, but always knowing. Beneath that archness there’s also something tender and quietly hopeful, recognising the fragility of human life while celebrating the reviving reinvention of the stage. At the heart of it all is a theatrical cliché made fresh by its own promise of renewal: the show must go on.

Photo: Manuel Harlan

A Stroke of Genius

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Originally written for Scout London.

“I suppose circumstances have conspired to make some kind of happy ending,” actor Edward Petherbridge reflects, a smile in his voice. It’s an unlikely comment, given that Petherbridge is discussing the major stroke that he experienced while rehearsing for a production of King Lear in New Zealand in 2007. One day he was preparing for one of the greatest tragic roles in the theatrical canon; the next, he was barely able to move.

Petherbridge describes the “episode” – he rarely uses the word stroke – as “completely unexpected and swift and sudden”. But while the stroke initially left him physically debilitated, unable to even move his thumb and index finger together, he soon discovered that the role of Lear was still stubbornly lodged in his mind, word for word. It was this extraordinary discovery, paired with a continuing fascination with the part he was robbed of, that eventually led to Petherbridge’s “happy ending” in the form of a show in which he finally gets to play Lear – sort of.

“I said to Paul Hunter in an idle moment when we were doing The Fantasticks together that I thought we could take a two-man Lear to the Edinburgh Festival,” Petherbridge explains. “He said, ‘well I might have a better idea than that, which is a show about you not doing Lear’.” The final product, emerging from a process of improvisation and devising, is My Perfect Mind, currently on tour ahead of a run at the Young Vic. Marrying Petherbridge’s experience with chunks of text from King Lear, co-deviser and performer Hunter describes the piece as a “strange, dreamlike journey through Edward’s brain”. Petherbridge plays himself and Lear, while Hunter single-handedly takes on all the other roles, from Petherbridge’s doctor to Lear’s fool.

“I don’t think either of us knew quite what the show would be that we might come up with, and I’m still rather amazed at what it is,” Petherbridge admits. Despite the trauma of the stroke, he tells me that there was little hesitation in taking Hunter up on his initial suggestion and mining those difficult experiences for theatrical material. This surprising lack of trepidation might even have something to do with the consequences of the stroke itself. “I heard on the radio not long after the stroke that the synapses that generate regret are often disabled by the brain damage that comes with it,” Petherbridge says by way of explanation.

While the nightly re-enactment of such a painful episode might sound challenging and emotionally exhausting, Petherbridge plays down these difficulties, turning again to Lear. “Someone asked me last night whether I found it at all painful or difficult,” he says, “but it’s no more painful than Lear’s much more gargantuan difficulties; mine pale into invisibility when compared with his.” He pauses for a moment, before adding, “and if acting isn’t a pleasurable experience, why do it?” This joy for acting and the theatre, which has clearly driven Petherbridge’s long and successful career, seems to have had an almost medicinal effect in the aftermath of the stroke and throughout the process of making this show. Indeed, Petherbridge refers to it fondly as “doctor theatre”.

Despite Petherbridge’s openness to chronicling his experiences for the stage, however, dealing with such personal subject matter has not been unproblematic. Hunter is frank is about the occasional discomfort of his own position in the process, saying “I’d be lying if I said there weren’t moments when I went ‘is this OK?’” He also speaks about the “responsibility” of what they are doing in grappling with this topic, but he emphasises the importance of comedy in the piece. “I think the thing that was really key was the sensitivity around the stroke, because Edward was very clear that he didn’t want to dwell on that too much or in any way to become maudlin or sentimental, and I think we’ve avoided that by treading quite lightly around it.”

The result, told in the absurd and madcap style characteristic of Hunter’s theatre company Told by an Idiot, is dreamlike and ever-shifting, rapidly jumping between Petherbridge’s life and the fictional world of Lear. As Petherbridge puts it, “it’s like a kaleidoscope of different bits of my life that Paul has shaken up”. There’s an evident connection between content and form, narrating the brain’s complex recovery from trauma in a way that reflects the extraordinary and often unexpected quirks of the human mind.

“To see the show might be like going to a seminar on Lear when you’ve taken a dose of LSD,” Petherbridge goes on to suggest, with evident glee at the comparison. “I know nothing about LSD firsthand,” he continues, “but I believe there are good and bad trips. I am hoping that the experience of seeing the show is a good trip.”

Photo: Manuel Harlan