Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: My Perfect Mind, Young Vic

Review: My Perfect Mind, Young Vic

The best of Told By An Idiot’s shows combine hard-thinking with utter stupidity. So it was with And the Horse You Rode In On – their screwball spin on political violence – and, blissfully, so it is with My Perfect Mind.

Edward Petherbridge was due to play Lear when, in a New Zealand hotel room, he suffered a stroke. The next day, he had another. He lost the use of his right arm and large chunks of his memory – but not the lines he’d learned over the year before. And, of course, he lost his shot at Lear, the pinnacle of any classical actor’s career. Six years on, recovery complete, this is clearly the loss he feels most keenly.

Almost no-one gets two attempts at Lear. Olivier did. Gielgud got five. Petherbridge hadn’t even thought he’d get one: “He’s an oak and I’m an ash or a priest.” It’s telling – and, given events, tragic – that he’d happily fly around the world for the opportunity.

At one level, then, this is Petherbridge’s Lear by another name. He plays himself playing Lear – and, to start, Lear playing Petherbridge – and original Idiot Paul Hunter steps into the fool’s shoes by playing everyone else. The leading actor, patronising a stage manager on day one, is king of the rehearsal room. The stroke replaces the storm; Hunter charges around to keep theatrical weather machines booming and whirring. “Oh, let me not be mad,” cries Petherbridge/Lear, “Not mad, sweet heaven.”

But My Perfect Mind is also an actor’s memoir – from childhood renditions of Chickery Chick to performing opposite Olivier – only one filtered through a fractured mind. Petherbridge steps from the wings of The Fantasticks, the 2010 musical flop during which he met Hunter, into a performance of Royal Hunt for the Sun in 1964. One role trips into another like a scratched record. It’s perfectly self-puncturing; gleefully sending up its own luvviness. Petherbridge looks down and realises he’s wearing the wrong socks for Lear. Anecdote on anecdote interrupts proceedings. Hands saw the air. The ego inflates.

Mostly, though, My Perfect Mind concerns our relationship with the past. It asks why we revisit the classics and what happens to us when time leaves us behind. Here’s Petherbridge, an old-school RSC man, playing himself in a postmodern piece of, as he puts it, “conceptual claptrap.” There’s Olivier, still looming from the sidelines, offering advice. It posits the theatre as a space of endless renewal, whether it looks back or strides forward, but the theatre also serves as a metaphor for life. History is the world’s memory, after all, and its no more reliable than Petherbridge’s.

All this, however, is handled with the most enormous sense of folly. Neither Hunter nor a very game Petherbridge miss an chance to clown, be it a chair sliding down the sloping stage, a ridiculous wig-accent combo or a tiptoe into the “borderline offensive” attitudes of yesteryear. For all it’s foolish, it’s hugely tender and for such a multi-faceted, fragmented show, it also moves with immense fluidity – a real credit to Kathryn Hunter’s keen-eyed direction. But it’s the layers of thought and the lightness of touch that makes My Perfect Mind such an exquisite treat of a show.

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