My Perfect Mind by Kathryn Hunter, Paul Hunter, and Edward Petherbridge is a whimsical, farcical production that distills kernels of truth about the illustrious career and artistic genius of British actor Edward Petherbridge. Petherbridge’s sterling resume includes nominations for Tonys in Broadway landmarks, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby (he played Newman Noggs), and Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude (Charlie Marsden). He created the role of Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and was the definitive Lord Peter Wimsey in the BBC’s Dorothy L. Sayers Mysteries for Masterpiece Theatre. He has won both Olivier and London Drama Critics’ Awards.
However, Petherbridge’s crowning achievements concern King Lear in an ironic twist. Petherbridge initially played the Fool in King Lear for The Actors Company which he co-founded with Ian McKellen, a production that debuted at BAM in 1974. His sterling performance was deemed Lear’s quintessential Fool by critics. When he was receiving these accolades for the role, never did he imagine that the play would be the touchstone for a personal drama that would occur years later when he was scheduled to perform the title role in a production of the same play in New Zealand. That personal drama was the inspiration for My Perfect Mind, currently at 59E59 Theaters as a part of the Brits Off Broadway season.
While rehearsing Lear, Petherbridge had two immobilizing strokes. He had to call off his performance and recuperate. It was touch and go because he was paralyzed on one side of his body. The conundrum was that despite this physical cataclysm, which is treated with humor and irony in My Perfect Mind, his soul was intact and he was able to remember all of his lines from Lear. It was like there were two Petherbridges: one physically incapacitated, the other sentient and mentally agile. My Perfect Mind is an innovative compendium of how Petherbridge lived before and after these strokes.
The winding wonder of the play, which Petherbridge, Hunter, and Hunter conceived and perfected together, reveals that he has completely recovered and is able to play Lear. After seeing Hunter and Petherbridge in action we marvel at Petherbridge’s ability to perform vignettes of Lear, as Hunter portrays various roles from the play, most importantly, Lear’s Fool. Their performance gives us a new appreciation of the capabilities of the mind, its resilience and fragility, its beauty and mystery. Petherbridge’s performance is an uplifting affirmation that life is an adventure and we must continue to be engaged and enthusiastic about all it throws at us, especially when adversity comes knocking and what we most fear threatens to come upon us. Truly, Petherbridge has topped his former career endeavors with his role in My Perfect Mind, for he is in his late 70s.
The production dramatizes key scenes in Petherbridge’s life, humorous moments before and after the strokes. Each of the scenes reflects concepts in Lear. One overriding theme is the capacity of the mind to negotiate a debilitating shock, yet recover – as Lear finally recovers himself, though for him it is too late.
For Petherbridge it is not. After the actor made a complete recovery he affirmed his creative talents by writing a book and exhibiting one of his paintings at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London. This exemplifies an ingenious and steadfast determination to extend his endeavors and eschew what could have been an irreconcilable loss if he had retired from his artistry and public scrutiny. My Perfect Mind elucidates Lear in a unique way through Petherbridge’s perception as one who knows what may have happened to Lear (he suffered a brain seizure and lost himself). It also symbolizes what may happen to many of us as we age or our minds grow weary and fail us. Indeed, the title of this Brits Off Broadway production refers to Lear’s realization of his own fallibility when he says, “I fear I am not in my perfect mind.”
My Perfect Mind is performed on a slant stage with a trapdoor that Petherbridge nimbly pops in and out of when the scenes require it of him. The stage is humorously off-kilter as is the improvisational tone of the riffs between Hunter and Petherbridge. Hunter plays various characters, some in Lear and some as a convention to introduce the performance (Petherbridge’s doctor). Petherbridge plays himself playing Lear. Between bits of dialogue, Petherbridge tells engaging stories about Lawrence Olivier, Noel Coward, and others he met during his theatrical career. Hunter portrays individuals in Petherbridge’s life, even his mother who died of a stroke.
The effect is at times comical, at times touching. When Hunter shows up as Lawrence Olivier in remnants of blackface which he used for Othello (Petherbridge had a walk-on part in the production when he began his tenure at the National Theatre), we see another side of the iconic Olivier quipping about how he never would have gotten away with blackface today. From beginning to end we are immersed, and amazed that Petherbridge has the humility, wit and courage to continually evolve as an actor, artist and human being. Perhaps one day he might even get back to starring in a production of King Lear. His convincing, tongue-in-cheek portrayal of himself as Lear convinces us that he could take the role on and do an admirable job.
This is an uplifting, fun production. Petherbridge takes the ball and runs after Hunter tosses it to him. Their seamless and relaxed interchanges remind us that this encomium to the power of the mind reveals grace despite stress; it reveals a new way to comprehend the mind’s shattering delicacy and its redemptive powers. Unlike glass, the mind is capable of regrowing or growing new pathways toward health. At the end of My Perfect Mind, Petherbridge has roundly proven it.
My Perfect Mind was created by Told by an Idiot, written by Kathryn Hunter, Paul Hunter, and Edward Petherbridge, and directed by Kathryn Hunter. It is produced by Told by an Idiot, Young Vic, and Theatre Royal Plymouth. As a part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters, it runs until Sunday, June 28.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B000062XDX][amazon template=iframe image&asin=142086792X][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0743484959][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0199267170][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0802132758]