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Theater Report: My Perfect Mind (part two, actually about the show)

Your Humble Blogger went to New York to see an off-Broadway show this past weekend. It was My Perfect Mind, and I enjoyed it a lot, but I don’t think it was a very good show. It’s hard to tell, because I enjoyed it so much.

Wait, did I do that bit already?

So. The Show. It’s hard to describe.

I’ll start with this: A few years ago, Edward Petherbridge suffered a stroke while rehearsing to play King Lear. No Lear. He made a near-complete recovery, learned to write again, speak properly, read and paint and so forth. This theatrical event depicts bits of Mr. Petherbridge’s life and career, his stroke and recovery, his… um, that’s it, really. Well, and King Lear. Lots of King Lear.

Edward Petherbridge plays the Edward Petherbridge character, and also King Lear, or at least plays Edward Petherbridge portraying King Lear, or sometimes he plays King Lear, and sometimes I think he may have been playing King Lear portraying Edward Petherbridge. Paul Hunter plays everybody else. Everybody else in Lear—he plays Gonoril and Regan, he plays Edward Petherbridge’s cleaning lady playing Gonoril and Regan, he plays Cordelia and the Fool, he plays the Lords of Burgundy and France. He plays Edward Petherbridge’s mother, father and brother; he plays the director, the ASM, and a cab driver in New Zealand; he plays Laurence Olivier; he plays Mr. Petherbridge’s agent; he plays a mad scientist; he plays an end-of-pier emcee; he plays the director, the director’s translator and a castmate in a production of The Fantasticks that was a flop of Carriesque proportions—wait, did I do that bit already?

Anyway, the point of bringing up the production of The Fantasticks is that the castmate Paul Hunter plays is, in fact, Paul Hunter and that the two who were thrown together found each other so congenial that they decided to work up a performance together, about Edward Petherbridge’s stroke and recovery, his life and career, and King Lear.

Now, all the reviews I had read, particularly when the thing started out last year in the UK, begin by saying This is an evening about Edward Petherbridge’s stroke and recovery, his life and career, and King Lear—but it’s better than that, really! And it is. For one thing, it’s not a one-man show, so that’s all right. For another, it’s much funnier, in places, than it has any right to be. There’s some physical comedy (not enough), some gentle self-mockery, and a good deal of absurdity. It’s called antic in the press materials, and it probably is, at least intermittently, which is probably enough.

My favorite part, I have to say, starts when a New Zealand cab driver (Paul Hunter, of course) picks him up after the first day of rehearsal for Lear (the actual rehearsal is only pretty-good; the welcoming haka just a gesture rather than the extended bit it could have been) and recognizes him from Royal Hunt of the Sun, leading in to Mr. Petherbridge demonstrating the chant and dance ritual from that 1964 show. The stage is steeply raked left-to-right, for some reason, with a trap door on the upper side, open at that point, and as he chants and gestures he steps uphill closer and closer to the trap door, and as I was giggling, he looked at me and said “It’s all right, I do see the hole, you know.” Then he re-enters the taxi (the driver admires his mime skills, so Mr. Petherbridge takes extra care miming closing the door as he sits), finishes the anecdote and is dropped off in Bradford (his home town in the north of England) in 1936, where he meets (Paul Hunter as) his mother, pregnant with himself.

Mssrs Petherbridge and Hunter

If that all sounds a bit difficult to follow, it is. I followed it all quite well, in large part because I had read his memoir (Slim Chances and Unscheduled Appearances) and read his blog and already knew much of the history and even the specific anecdotes. There were still moments when, for instance, I couldn’t tell that Paul Hunter was portraying Laurence Olivier portraying Othello; I figured it out eventually. Those in the audience who were unable to match up the sudden scene changes with ones remembered from reading would have been altogether at sea. Why were we suddenly at a talent show on a pier in Wigan (or wherever)? And why should we care?

This may be the most fundamental problem with the thing—sure, it could use some less shambolic organization and further refinement of the scenes would be good in places, but unless you went in already half in love with the man it didn’t give you any particular reason to care about any of it. I mean, yes, very sad that he had a stroke, but here he is in front of us obviously recovered, so where’s the drama? For me, there was the tension of zoh my goodness look it really is Edward Petherbridge right in front of me! but if that reaction is necessary for the show to work, that’s not good.

And also… Mr. Petherbridge doesn’t reveal anything about his relationships to people that he cares about. His wife, for instance, does not appear: we do not participate in a phone call with the news of the stroke, nor does he ask for her, nor does he talk about missing her, either before or after the stroke, half a world away. Nor, for that matter, is there any sense that he was feeling her absence whilst in New York performing the thing (there were occasional references ad lib to being in New York) and I don’t remember him mentioning her at all at any point. I assume she asked him not to, which is fine, of course, albeit a large absence. (Your Humble Blogger has been reminded that she is mentioned in passing in an anecdote about visiting the graves of his ancestors.) He does have a rather poignant moment with his father, who doesn’t speak, and there is a great visual image of Mr. Petherbridge post-stroke walking with the aid of the wall whilst his mother, post-stroke seventy-five years earlier, walks past in the opposite direction with the aid of a chair. But these are moments, not themes. There is little conflict, little dramatic tension, and surprisingly little story-telling. That’s an awful lot of lack for an hour and a half.

And yet, I loved it. There were running gags, terrible jokes, bizarre visuals, poignant moments, and nearly enough showing off. There were also longish passages of King Lear which is a play that has been growing on me as I age, and by now I am quite in love with. I don’t know how good a Lear Mr. Petherbridge would have been—he wasn’t outstanding in the beginning parts when he must be every inch a king, but in the end, fond and foolish and not in his perfect mind, not knowing where he is or what he is wearing, looking at Paul Hunter and saying I think this is my child, it was heart-breaking. As for the storm… well, the storm scene ends with Mr. Petherbridge crying out This is not the production of Lear I want to be in! and the audience agreeing with him.

Well. There it is. As a piece of theater, pretty much terrible; as a performance, pretty much wonderful; as an experience for Your Humble Blogger, pretty much the best. And I should say—I have not gone to any other performances of look-back-on-my-life-and-work, a rapidly increasing subgenre of the monodrama, and I’d be willing to say that every one of those sound inferior to My Perfect Mind in just about every way.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,