King Lear, Act 4, Scene 7
When I heard of a show being described as “Like watching a masterclass on King Lear under the influence of LSD” (Daily Telegraph) I simply had to book myself a ticket. ‘My Perfect Mind’, created by Told By An Idiot and currently playing in the studio theatre of the Young Vic, first appeared back last April, and is now back, by popular demand, first in London and then on a UK and international tour.
The play itself, in an incredibly roundabout way, tells the story of Edward Petherbridge (famous for being the original Guildenstern in Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead’ and playing Lord Peter Wimsey on TV) and his experience when he suffered a stroke in New Zealand while about to play King Lear there. He could remember all of the famous and powerful lines, but was completely paralysed down one side of his body.
This might sound like an incredibly moving Channel Four documentary deliberately created to play on your heartstrings, but I promise you, it is so much more entertaining and interesting than that. Directed by Kathryn Hunter (once a famous King Lear herself), written by her, Paul Hunter and Petherbridge, and performed by the latter two actors, this is a close-knit production. This much is obvious from the mutual respect and quick repartee between the two.
In fact, in a play like this, where the situation is constantly changing, and Hunter is literally running around the stage becoming the cleaner, the Kiwi director, the Kiwi prompt lady, Cordelia, a German psychologist with a “borderline offensive” accent and, I felt most importantly, the Fool, this bond between the two actors is vital in making the play seem a whole, rather than lots of little scenes and sketches.
The production is incredibly meta; every time you get used to the crazy direction they’ve gone in, and settle down to enjoy the acting and plot, one of them stops the action and says to the other: “Hold it, hold it, hold it. This is ridiculous and somehow pretentious and slapdash at the same time,” and the engine starts again, and off we go into another, related but completely different direction. Maybe this sounds confusing and an exaggerated conceit, but I promise you, it completely works.
And despite their own criticism of their acting, there are actually several very touching moments in amongst the hilarious impressions of Laurence Olivier’s racist Othello and a young Edward Petherbridge singing in a talent competition. The brief moments of King Lear are very powerful, especially the storm scene, where Petherbridge bellows the words out, as Hunter rushes around thundering and raining and hailing with the use of various contraptions around the lopsided stage. Another astonishingly touching and powerful moment was when Petherbridge hoarsely uttered the words “Howl, howl” in a corner of the stage, before quickly disappearing off. This must have lasted about ten seconds, and yet with just two words, a whole world of anguish and pain opened up before our eyes. It was moments like this that made me really want to see Petherbridge’s full, straight King Lear – one only hopes the RSC really will pick it up.
The set itself is deceivingly basic; an askew stage (the very epitome of “pretentious” and “slapdash”), white walls behind, table and chairs, a few hats, and several contraptions and seats and things hidden beneath huge dustcloths. Yet the simplicity makes it easier to flit between sketches quickly, and also provides many of the ‘meta’ jokes in the script, especially some great ones about “miming being such an unsatisfactory medium.” The two cast members use every prop; every inch of floor and wall space to make more actors seem unnecessary, redundant.
Overall, this is a brilliant new piece of theatre, well worth seeing, especially if you are a theatre/Shakespeare fan already. I would especially recommend it to drama and English students, as I think it presents an entirely new perspective of ‘King Lear’, both in relating the intense emotions to the present day and an understandable situation, and also in adding a lot of humour to the gut-wrenching situation. There are also a load of great stagey anecdotes in there which are a lot of fun. The thunderous applause at the end from the packed house was well deserved by Hunter and Petherbridge for their exhausting, triumphant production.
‘My Perfect Mind’ at the Young Vic Theatre: 4/5 stars