Saturday 4 October 2014

Theatre Review: My Perfect Mind at the Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Having barely begun rehearsing for King Lear in New Zealand, Edward Petherbridge was felled by a severe stroke which left him needing to learn to walk again. Yet, despite having lost so much, the entire role of Lear still inhabited his mind. His remarkable experiences have now been brought to the stage by Told by an Idiot in a production, previously shown to great acclaim at the Theatre Royal Plymouth and the Young Vic, which is now on tour.
Petherbridge plays himself with the air of a classical actor previously denied, whose time in the spotlight has come. His life may appear an unlikely matter for laughter, but he’s full of acerbic lines and witty asides. Paul Hunter, his sparring partner, delivers every other character in the piece by mining a rich seam of comedy and injecting hilarious energy into them all. He gets away with an admirable amount by excusing several of his creations from the past as “borderline offensive”. There’s a partially blacked-up Laurence Olivier fresh from Othello, an Eastern European cleaning lady who turns out to be an academic specialising in Lear, and most touchingly of all Petherbridge’s mother, who herself suffered a stroke just before he was born.
In the beginning, Petherbridge is presented as a case study by a madcap German professor (Hunter in a terrible wig), instantly breaking down the fourth wall by treating the audience as his new students. His subject has EPS, we are told; Edward Petherbridge Syndrome, where a man who is king has delusions that he is really an ageing actor from West Hampstead. But who is the king and who the fool? Where does memory really end and imagination begin? The jumbled but gradually untangling strands of Petherbridge’s life, over the course of 90 minutes, will turn this crazy case study a full circle.
The set, designed by Michael Vale, is a raked stage angled so steeply that even the simplest movements require effort and consideration. Chairs slide away unbidden and an open hatch is a deep, dark well which must always be minded and stepped around. Lines from Lear are intertwined with fragments of disordered memory from Edward’s past. On occasion it could almost become maudlin, but just as a scene is in danger of over-indulgence, so Kathryn Hunter’s direction peels it away and replaces it with another.
Despite being viewed through the prism of Lear’s madness, My Perfect Mind is far from an out-and-out tragedy. As a two-hander, it’s performed with great sensitivity and involves its appreciative audience from the start. The play may question identity and contain serious reflections on the resilience of the human spirit, but it is ever draped in the warm overcoat of comedy. Ultimately, this renders the theatrical experience all the more moving, because it becomes a tender celebration of a life retrieved.

My Perfect Mind finished its run at the Tobacco Factory on 4th October 2014, but is touring until 21st November 2014. Other tour dates and venues can be found here | Photo: Manuel Harlan

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