“Pray, do not mock me.
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less.
And to deal plainly
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.”
I booked to see My Perfect Mind at the Young Vic because the subject matter – an actor about to play King Lear is suddenly incapacitated by a stroke – thinking that much of it was going to be about the frustration that stroke patients endure, retaining their mental faculties but losing their ability to control their bodies. The character’s name is Edward Petherbridge, but in this production he’s actually played by the real Edward Petherbridge, because this is his own true story adapted to the stage (although early on we are told he is actually King Lear and is hallucinating that he is an actor called Edward Petherbridge). But what a story, eh? I was curious how we were going to show that frustration that stroke victims have, of not being able to do or say what they clearly know they want to, and how we would be let into Lear when Petherbridge wasn’t able to get the words out.
What I didn’t realize, first, was that this play was going to be really funny; second, that it was going to be, essentially, a one man King Lear (a la Alan Cumming’s also-not-really-one-man Macbeth), with another actor filling in the many other roles; third, that the play would strongly explore the parallels between Lear’s loss of his mind (I tend to think of the mad bit as being a “scene” but as per the quote above, Lear goes through quite a period of self-doubt) and the actor’s loss of control over his body. Very little of this play, in fact, was about being in a hospital or recovering from a stroke; rather, it was a journey through Petherbridge’s life as an actor, with rather a lot of King Lear happening alongside. There were scenes in Bradford, scenes with his mom, some made-up scenes in a university lecture room, lots and lots of scenes from Lear (sometimes as done in rehearsal with the company in New Zealand; sometimes as done with the cleaning lady from Romania as Petherbridge is learning the role; others more straight); and lots of reminiscences about actors and acting life gone by (Lawrence Olivier wearing fake blackface for Othello while doing a Richard III limp was pretty good).
I laughed far more than I thought I would, enjoyed the in-jokes about theater, and laughed at the sadness of a seventy-year-old actor performing a children’s song at a sea-side resort (in a melding of memories past and present that perfectly captured the way the mind wanders under stress). The actors improved off each other, the audience, and the captions above the stage, so the whole thing was very fresh feeling and not at all like a medical or personal history. In fact, it was extremely touching, and when it was over 90 minutes later, I thought it had been about 45 and I’d misread my watch. Congratulations to both Petherbridge and his Fool (Paul Hunter) – you’ve created not just a performance about one person’s experience, but a fine play.
(This review is for a performance that took place on April 23rd, 2013. It continues through May 4th. I could only fit in one more play before May 5th and I feel confident that I made a good choice picking this one.)