Here are the facts: Edward Petherbridge, while in New Zealand rehearsing King Lear in 2007, suffered a stroke. That experience (the illness, the production that didn’t happen) inspired My Perfect Mind. Here is another fact: the play, written by Kathryn Hunter, Paul Hunter and Petherbridge himself, is simple (two actors playing dozens of parts with the assistance of mundane props) yet difficult to describe. It’s free association, perfectly structured, executed and improvised, through the imagination, emotions, memories and images of a perfect mind. Freud without the couch, the doctor or the breaks.
In truth, the title of the play, taken from King Lear (“I fear I am not in my perfect mind”) is not ironic. This is an agile strong mind bursting with Shakespeare’s world, family memories in Bradford, imaginary or real conversations with Laurence Olivier, quotes of John Keats about Edmund Keane (“his tongue must seem to have robbed ‘the hybla bees, and left them honeyless”), images of Donald Wilfit in Goodge street tube station, clear precise descriptions of illness. Blurring the lines between memory and imagination testifies to the strength, not weakness, of our intellectual lives. The theatrical devices are not merely the means of delivering this reality, they are its essence. Our only hope for understanding the world is stepping back from it.
The narrative has a wild anarchic inventiveness delivered with supreme confidence. Edward Petherbridge plays himself with a mixture of diffidence, mistrust and acerbic yet furious energy. Paul Hunter, playing everyone else, gives an optical illusion of a performance. The slightest of changes suggest a different world and our mind latches onto them with glee.
The play is directed by Kathryn Hunter and created by Told By an Idiot. I know nothing about the company, but a) I need to keep an eye out, clearly and b) their name tells you more about the play than I ever could. This Is Your Life as narrated by King Lear’s The Fool. All That Jazz for the Shakespearean actor.
P.S. Taking my seat, I noticed a reservation with John Peter’s name on it. John Peter, retired theatre critic of the Sunday Times, is mentioned in the play. Do they change the critic’s name depending on who is in the house? Is the sign the joke? Did I imagine the whole thing?
The Hamlet Challenge: advice for actors dispensed during the play: Shakespeare is not for pauses. “Hamlet thinks a lot but never stops talking. Shakespeare’s characters think what they say and say what they think”.