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Theatre in Review: My Perfect Mind (Brits Off Broadway/59E59)

Paul Hunter, Edward Petherbridge. Photo: Manuel Harlan.

A few years ago, Edward Petherbridge, in New Zealand to play King Lear, suffered a stroke that severely impaired his ability to move. As a visit to 59E59 will show, he made a full recovery, and is uncommonly spry for 78. My Perfect Mind focuses on these events, but if you expect an earnest, conventionally uplifting example of the theatre of testimony, you are cruelly deceived. Working with coauthor and director, Kathryn Hunter, and coauthor and costar, Paul Hunter, Petherbridge turns a challenging, potentially tragic, illness into rollicking vaudeville, marked by outrageous ethnic accents, deadpan slapstick, and catty show business commentary. Almost any other performer would have taken us step by step through his rehabilitation, asking us to tear up over the triumph of the human spirit. Petherbridge and company have no time for that; they're much too busy tossing out throwaway gags about Oedipus at Colonus, as translated by Russell Crowe, and meditating on Laurence Olivier's famous comment that, when playing Lear, the most important feature is a slender Cordelia.

My Perfect Mind instantly gets down to its fey, funny madhouse business, as Paul Hunter, Petherbridge's foil-for-all-seasons, enters Michael Vale's set, an all-white environment dominated by a raised deck that is severely raked from stage left to stage right. The actor sports a terrible wig and even more terrible German accent. Passing himself off as a famous neurologist, he presents us with a patient suffering from EPS, the dread Edward Petherbridge Syndrome. (The symptoms apparently include believing that one starred in the original production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and the legendary Royal Shakespeare Company production of Nicholas Nickleby.) In reality, the doctor insists, the patient is the legendary King Lear.

Petherbridge enters, as himself, a kind of human exclamation point with the eyes of a soulful basset hound and the voice of an oboe in mourning. Hunter nods in smug satisfaction as Petherbridge shows classic British actor mannerisms, blithely wrapping his scarf around his neck, referring to everyone as "darling," and spinning anecdotes about Noël Coward and Donald Wolfit. Then, as if to seal the diagnosis, Petherbridge launches into an authoritative version of the scene in which Lear divides his land among his daughters, taking on the roles of Regan and Goneril himself.

Suddenly, Hunter interrupts the action, suggesting that a new opening is needed. "I'm a bit worried about my German accent," he says. "I think it might be borderline offensive." "Borderline?" sniffs Petherbridge, as if to say all debate on that point was long ago terminated. Thus, they hit the reset button, with Petherbridge addressing the audience: "Any resemblance to persons living or dead is...highly unlikely. I'm just trying to cover us legally, darling."

And we're off, surfing through the shards of Petherbridge's memory of events before and after he was felled by the stroke. (We will even get a reversal of that opening scene, with the doctor claiming that the deluded Petherbridge imagines that he is Lear.) He and Hunter recall their first meeting, in a disastrous West End revival of The Fantasticks. ("John Peter in The Sunday Times said he was reduced to gnawing his kneecaps.") Petherbridge's first day of rehearsal for Lear sets up a comedy routine featuring Hunter as Carol, fresh out of drama school and hired to serve as the actor's overly prompt prompter. ("I think you'll find there is a semicolon there," Petherbridge says with mounting dudgeon. "That's Shakespeare's sweet way of allowing me to breathe. Is it all right with you if I breathe?") An encounter with a cab driver, who is also a fan, leads to a farcical recreation of Petherbridge's performance as an Incan priest in Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun. There's also a briskly amusing memory of life at the Miss MacPride Conservatoire of Theatre and Movement, where, among other things, he was asked to impersonate a day in the life of a gnat.

Up to this point, My Perfect Mind is best enjoyed by those familiar with the names and faces of mid-20th-century British theatre. When an audience member reacts vocally to the mention of Donald Wolfit, Petherbridge blissfully notes what he calls "the sound of elderly remembrance." (At the performance I attended, a sly reference to Olivier's alleged affair with Danny Kaye, one of the last century's more jaw-dropping bits of theatrical gossip, slipped by, with barely an audience chuckle. Then again, a reference to Oliver's hambone turn as Zeus in the much-derided film Clash of the Titans got an enormous laugh; go figure.) But the thoroughly unsentimental depiction of the actor's stroke grounds the play in more universal matters: Stricken, he lies on the stage facedown and painfully crawls toward a phone; in the hospital, the doctor asks him to move the fingers on his right hand, a task that is beyond him. Later, he moves through the hospital corridor, so slowly and tentatively that one feels a chill at the fragility that marks each of our lives.

And so it goes, from bits of autobiography to music hall-style routines to scenes of Petherbridge's recovery and generous excerpts from the Lear performance that never was. Everything comes together in a reading of the terrible scene in which the enfeebled Lear is reunited, disbelievingly, with his beloved Cordelia. The actor's reading of Lear's famous lines ("I fear I am not in my perfect mind/Methinks I should know you, and know this man") reverberates with the frailties of the character and the actor playing him. And when, near the end, he demonstrates his ability to move the fingers in his right hand, you understand exactly how hard won is his current state of health.

Petherbridge, lean of limb and blessed with a speaking voice that ranges over countless octaves, has a supremely light touch, muttering his wisecracks as if apologizing for their caustic content, corralling the most oddball comment until it gets the laugh it deserves. Staring at the perilously slanted stage, he says, "We were promised a level playing field tonight." Covering the upstage wall with sketches of Lear's daughter, which he then douses with paint, he dismisses the whole business, saying, "It looks like a bad day at MoMA." When the scene with Lear on the blasted heath arrives, he is perfectly capable of slipping into a bit of "Stormy Weather." And, when one isn't looking, he launches into Shakespeare's verse with an authority and clarity that leaves one stunned.

Hunter proves to be an ideal partner, whether dispensing incomprehensible bits of direction as the Japanese director of The Fantasticks, donning a hairnet to become Petherbridge's mother (who, strangely, had a stroke two days before giving birth to him), or spreading a circle of Light Egyptian makeup around his face to become Olivier, in the days of his triumph as Othello. He also has a lovely turn as Petherbridge's cleaning lady, who is improbably revealed to be a noted Middle European Shakespeare scholar, and as the director of the New Zealand Lear, especially in an uproarious discussion of the paraphernalia needed for the blinding of Gloucester. So precise is this pair's deadpan, dancing-on-one's-grave fooling that it is impossible not to speculate what they would be like as the benighted protagonists of Waiting for Godot.

Kathryn Hunter's direction ensures that the impeccably light-fingered tone is maintained throughout, the better to highlight the sadness underneath the fun. The lighting, by Alex Wardle, of the theatre consultancy Charcoalblue, switches looks and moods on a dime. Gregory Clarke's sound design combines ghostly piano exercises with atmospheric effects, such as thunder. The set includes several old-fashioned effect generators, including a thunder sheet and a wind machine, all of which are put to good use.

My Perfect Mind is an exceptionally tricky entertainment, an evening of show business comedy that insinuates by degrees its message of endurance and survival, leaving one surprised to be so moved. Its story is of man's encounter with mortality, but every second of it teems with laughter and life. -- David Barbour

(22 June 2015)

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