16 April, 2013
Listen to a wonderful interview with Edward and his My Perfect Mind co-star Paul Hunter on the BBC World Service programme Outlook. The interview was first broadcast on Monday 15 April and is now available on the BBC website. It begins 27 minutes into the programme.
12 April, 2013
‘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
09 April, 2013
A few years ago, that whimsical and touching actor Edward Petherbridge suffered a stroke while rehearsing the title role of King Lear in New Zealand. He was almost unable to move, but could remember every word of Lear’s lines. You might expect this theatrical re-enactment of the trauma to be a misery memoir or a tale of courage in adversity, but it is neither of those things.
Co-written by Petherbridge, his co-star Paul Hunter and the show’s director Kathryn Hunter (who once famously played King Lear herself), this is a show of constant invention and delight.
We get a lot of King Lear, with Petherbridge delivering the mad king’s lines with a rare, spellbinding gentleness, but as the actor himself has said, the show is like watching a masterclass on King Lear under the influence of LSD. Even the stage design is tilted at a crazy angle.
Petherbridge, now 76 and fully recovered, revisits his childhood in Bradford, and delivers entertaining theatrical anecdotes about his time at Olivier’s National Theatre. He even does on-stage paintings of Lear and his daughters that are part Jackson Pollock, part Rolf Harris.
This is also a show about putting on a show, and one that frequently strays into fantasy, with Paul Hunter playing, among many others, a lunatic brain doctor in a terrible wig convinced he is treating the real King Lear, as well as giving touching performances as both Cordelia and Petherbridge’s mother. He also offers some hilarious impersonations of Laurence Olivier.
My Perfect Mind is a show unlike any other and one that captures Petherbridge’s endearing personality, both as an actor – who can forget his extraordinarily moving Newman Noggs in the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby? – and as a man.
Charles Spencer, TELEGRAPH, 8 April 2013
|Photo by Alastair Muir|
In 2007, the veteran English actor Edward Petherbridge went to New Zealand, expecting to play King Lear. But within a couple of days of starting rehearsals, he had a stroke and his hopes of tackling this exacting Shakespearean role were dashed — though the lines were all intact in his memory.
My Perfect Mind explores this episode and its implications. It is the work of Told by an Idiot, a company with a gift for inventive physicality. Taking its name from one of Lear’s self-diagnoses, a fearful statement about his crumbling sanity, it mixes tomfoolery and pathos.
Petherbridge blends autobiographical recollections with snatches from his unseen Lear, shaking them around to create an unlikely but juicy cocktail. Paul Hunter plays several characters: among them are Petherbridge’s doctor and mother, as well as Laurence Olivier and a theatre director whose manner put me in mind of Rhys Darby’s hapless fixer Murray Hewitt in Flight of the Conchords. The results are charming, sometimes very funny and occasionally bizarre.
On a sloping set designed by Michael Vale, the two actors evoke a lopsided world. This is obviously an image of Petherbridge’s post-stroke existence but it’s also a vision of the peculiarities of theatre. My Perfect Mind sometimes feels like a critique of stage lore and actors’ arcane practices — from the conventions of the rehearsal room to the limitations of mime — and as such it will probably appeal most to theatre junkies.
Certainly there are moments where the show edges towards being a parody of a high-concept dramatic provocation. Yet it is much more than that, suggesting among other things the way performers are haunted — not just by the achievements of their predecessors but by ghostly intimations of where their own careers might have led.
It’s a celebration of theatre’s special capacity to “stab at the truth” in a way that often seems difficult in real life.
There is a carefully managed chaos in Kathryn Hunter’s production. Paul Hunter treads a fine line between zany charisma and clownish excess.
Meanwhile, Petherbridge gives a layered performance that combines candour, wit, quizzical vagueness and a dry dignity. His understated yet heartfelt work is essential to the success of this playful and highly unusual piece.
Henry Hitching, EVENING STANDARD, 8 April 2013
08 April, 2013
Six years ago Edward Petherbridge flew to New Zealand to play King Lear. But two days into rehearsals a stroke paralysed this fit septuagenarian’s right side. The irony was that, just before his birth, his mother also suffered a stroke and achieved recovery with ferocious determination in defiance of contemporary doctors.
The same determination gripped her son seven decades later and he made a good recovery with — to his surprise — the whole of the Lear text still word perfect. But he was unlikely to get the chance again: his first outing was in an awful fey musical called The Fantasticks, which bombed in 2010. Reviews were lousy, but I remember how he stole the show in an hilarious caricature of an ancient actor “proving that, to portray a terrible old ham, you need a serious, un-hammy old pro".
He struck up a friendship with Paul Hunter during that doomed venture, and they cooked up the idea of a two-man show weaving in the stroke story, some Lear speeches and bits of Petherbridge’s early life in Bradford.
I had expected something affecting, a bit solemn and memento mori, even though Kathryn Hunter, who has rattled the cages by playing Lear herself, is director and co-creator. But add to that Petherbridge’s gift for dry self-parody and Paul Hunter’s quirky company Told by an Idiot and it all becomes wilder and funnier.
On a crazily sloping stage, with a trapdoor through which the pair crawl grumbling from time to time, the disjointed, almost hallucinatory format veers and crashes around with deliberate (stroke-like) confusion. Hunter becomes a comedy psychiatrist, doctor, cab driver, crass Kiwi director, Goneril, Cordelia, the Fool, a childhood ballet mistress and — affectingly, despite the hairnet — Petherbridge’s mother. When he first struggles silently to walk along a hospital corridor she crosses silently, doggedly supporting herself with a chair: a role model from long ago.
Hunter also dons a striped blazer as a talent show compere, while the silver-haired, rangily distinguished adult Petherbridge discards Lear and adulthood to become a nine-year-old of long ago, piping a nonsense rhyme. It’s a beguiling oddity, its serious core thrown away in one line amid the foolery. Our hero says that it is “easier to stab at the truth in the theatre than in real life …” And so it is.
Libby Purves, THE TIMES, 6 April 2013
|Photo by Manuel Harlan|
The facts are these: in 2007, Petherbridge travelled to Wellington in New Zealand to fulfil his long-cherished ambition to play Shakespeare's mad monarch. But two days into rehearsal, he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralysed. Remarkably, he was still able to remember every word of King Lear.
Played out on Michael Vale’s tilted stage – a world that’s off-kilter and difficult to physically negotiate – and directed by Kathryn Hunter (who has played both Lear and the Fool), the show mirrors the relationship between the foolish king and his wise fool. Paul Hunter plays a series of fall guys, from a German psychiatrist to a Romanian Shakespeare professor, and Laurence Olivier, who advises that the essential requirement for an actor who plays Lear is a Cordelia who weighs very little. There is a running gag that all these impersonations are “borderline offensive”.
In fact, the entire show gurgles with merriment as it skewers luvvydom, pokes fun at conceptual art and offers tongue-in-cheek advice to theatre-makers on how to treat the audience: “You've got to shove it up their arses before you shove it down their throats.” The theatrical in-jokes would wear thin, were it not for the fact that Petherbridge’s mixture of bravado and frailty brings real heart to the enterprise. So, too, does the untangling of his relationships with his mother, who herself suffered a stroke two days before he was born, and his brother.
It’s a show that invokes the ghosts of Petherbridge’s childhood, the ghosts of all those actors who have played Lear, and the ghost of the performance that Petherbridge never got to give. The result is a funny, moving reminder that however much we aspire to be the king, we are all fools in one way or another.
Lyn Gardner, GUARDIAN, 7 April 2013
|Photo by Manuel Harlan|
My Perfect Mind, if anything, is a homage to the actor’s life and this remarkable man who, after being struck down by one of the most dangerous, debilitating diseases has come back fighting fit. The fact he’s not just come back from this, but written about it with such humour, eccentricity and joy, is what we found ourselves applauding.
The ‘very fond, foolish old man’ speech is deeply touching and shows audience members what New Zealanders missed out on. Long before that, the evening opens with a kind of Germanic prologue as a doctor of some indeterminate type with a terrible wig warns us to anticipate a bad case of Edward Petherbridge Syndrome. In fact, the evening turns into a charming example of that syndrome, showing the veteran actor to good effect, particularly when his perfect comic timing is called upon.
BRITISH THEATRE GUIDE
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05 April, 2013
Listen to a fascinating interview with Edward on last night’s edition of BBC Radio 3’s Night Waves. The interview begins at 34:37 and ends at 47:40. Edward’s fellow guest is cultural critic and clinical neuroscientist Raymond Tallis. Together they discuss the neuroanatomy of memory in relation to the stroke Edward suffered six years ago on the eve of playing King Lear.