“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.
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