Saturday 13th April 2013, matinée
Some people say reviews are important because they form a useful record, an evocation of the theatrical experience for those who were not able to attend. Well, not in this case – My Perfect Mind defies description, evocation or any other meaningful adjectives. The tone is set when Paul Hunter bounds onto the stage to address the audience, announcing that due to a knee injury to one of the cast (it’s a two-hander), the performance may be ‘more improvisational than usual’. Our minds were immediately set racing at the idea of the various acrobatics which Edward Petherbridge might otherwise have pulled off had his knee been fully functional. We also liked the ‘mobile phone’ announcement, an art at which the Young Vic is becoming rather good. Please keep your mobile switched on at all times, we are urged – then you can make calls, text and browse the internet whenever you like.
My Perfect Mind is a play about a performance that never happened. Edward Petherbridge, having received the offer of a lifetime, to play King Lear in New Zealand, succumbed to a stroke which put paid to his ambition. Toying with the idea of a ‘one man Lear’, he was lucky enough to meet Paul Hunter, founding member of the theatre company Told By An Idiot, who along with Kathryn Hunter, helped him devise this show instead. Hunter and Petherbridge met in another ill-fated production, the short-lived West End run of the ‘Fantasticks’ which also featured David Burt, and we wish we’d gone to see it now. Instead, we are very pleased to see the result of this chance meeting, a double act to be savoured. Hunter is a manic bundle of energy, anarchic and always edgy – even when smiling. He plays everything from a German Psychiatrist (is this borderline racist? he asks at one point – well several points), to Laurence Olivier playing Richard the III and Othello as a composite character. Petherbridge meanwhile has taken the famous advice ‘Don’t just do something – stand there’ to the ultimate level. Not only does he seem to command the stage with almost no effort, he makes the tiniest of trivia engrossing, constantly undercutting any hint of grandiosity. Interrupting a speech to wonder why Shakespearean actors always hold an arm out when declaiming, complaining about a misplaced chair, or letting us know that he is aware that there is a big hole in the stage.
If you are looking for any deep interpretation of ‘King Lear’, good luck. The real delight of this play is the forensic deconstruction of the acting life that we find amongst the debris of Petherbridge’s shattered ambition. An actor’s life can only be understood by grasping the sheer absurdity and inherent contradictions. The glory is always besieged by insecurity; extreme sensitivity must be coupled with a thick skin; actors must maintain the illusion of control whilst having none. We are constantly reminded of the mechanics of theatre – there are some tips about how to do a good mime and some neat subversion of it, and thanks to Michael Vale’s design the stage appears to be half built and on a precarious slope, inviting the comment from Petherbridge that it looks like either ‘pretension or carelessness’, neither of which are ideal. The story is constantly being reframed so that we are never quite sure what to believe, with Lear’s key ‘madness’ played as a therapy session involving interpretative art and a lot of paint throwing.
As we said, indescribable. What we can’t convey is the delightfully self-deprecating humour which infuses these ninety minutes of tragi-comedy – as Petherbridge himself described it in an interview, this is the booby prize. But it’s a highly enjoyable and heart-warming booby prize which is genuinely theatrical. It might be a tale ‘Told by an idiot’ but these people are no fools.
Update 6th May 2013: and for a view from the horses mouths, check out this interview from Theatrevoice