My Perfect Mind – Young Vic Theatre, London
The stage is decidedly wonky. A white platform raised on one side, the other side sloping precariously downwards.
It’s a suitably off-kilter setting for a rather off-kilter show, creating a glimpse of the confusion to follow and sense of an upward struggle.
The defiant yet playful struggle in question is that of veteran actor Edward Petherbridge, who in 2007 suffered a severe stroke just two days into rehearsals for a production of King Lear in New Zealand.
My Perfect Mind is a play about a performance that never happened. Whilst contemplating a ‘one man Lear’, he met Paul Hunter, founding member of the theatre company Told By An Idiot, who along with Kathryn Hunter, assisted him in devising this show instead.
The result is a mad blend of stream of consciousness and wacky comedy, a gloriously surreal glimpse at Petherbridge’s experience that is as much about theatre as it is about the human mind itself.
Hunter meanwhile is a manic bundle of energy. He plays everything from a German psychiatrist to Laurence Olivier as Richard III.
With an acting career spanning more than half a century, it seems inevitable that this mildly autobiographical production would be littered with theatrical anecdotes. Laurence Olivier himself makes the occasional, hilarious cameo, while other names are dropped with just the right level of enthusiasm, including Noel Coward and Ian McKellen.
My Perfect Mind also illustrates how the workings of theatre reflect the workings of the mind, treading an almost invisible line between truth and imagination.
Petherbridge’s performance is perfectly understated, commanding the stage with virtually no effort. Interrupting his own speeches to ponder why Shakespearean actors always gesture in an overly-dramatic fashion, or even letting the audience know that he is aware that there is a big hole in the stage.
The text of King Lear itself is dotted throughout, this being more tragic than an actual Shakespearean piece as we are frequently reminded that this was a role cruelly snatched away. It is clear that this production is Petherbridge’s only chance to play the part. On paper, it doesn’t sound like it should work but in practice it works beautifully. He and Hunter make a fantastic if unlikely double act, rough around the edges, but with a brilliant thrown together quality.
Overall this is a beautifully constructed piece of theatre, with thought and care but without being overly sentimental.