Interview: Petherbridge & Hunter on My Perfect Mind

In 2007, British actor Edward Petherbridge suffered a stroke that left him unable to play King Lear, a part that he had travelled to New Zealand to rehearse. Nevertheless, the actor was still able to recall every one of his lines. Of this serious incident he and Paul Hunter have created My Perfect Mind, a re-imagination of Edward’s life and career in reeling retrospect, in which lines from King Lear – the golden egg role of an actor’s career – are tossed in alongside a host of theatrical and popular references. In Barcelona last week, the actors explained how their fortuitous meeting in a failed West End production came to spawn this massively successful autobiographical comedy.

Edward Petherbridge as King Lear in My Perfect Mind Where did the idea come from?
(Edward Petherbridge): In 2010, Paul and I were working on a musical called The Fantasticks in which we had to play a Laurel and Hardy-style double act, and, as the only part of the show that was universally admired, we thought we should do it again. So I said to Paul: ‘you know I had a stroke and was unable to play King Lear. Well, why don’t I do Lear and you do all the other parts and we can take it to the Edinburgh Fringe!’ But then Paul came up with a better idea: a play about me not doing King Lear.
I initially only went along with the idea so long as I could shovel in as much of King Lear as I could, but the rest of the show was completely improvised and it was only afterwards that we wrote it down. The end result is chunks of King Lear intermingled with a trip through my theatrical life in which Paul plays everyone else: my mother, a cleaning lady, a taxi driver, two doctors and Laurence Olivier… He’s not in the least like any of them – except that I believe in him.

Michael Gambon as King Lear, Anthony Sher played The Fool, 1982

Michael Gambon as King Lear, ‘terrified’.

Do you regret not playing King Lear?
EP: It’s the Titan of roles! I have huge admiration for it! But I don’t like the man. There’s just so much room for failure: am I powerful enough? Do I shout enough, or too much…? It’s a fairy tale! Two of his daughters are impossibly difficult and one is impossibly good, and he makes the mistake of thinking the bad ones are the good ones… and I thought: ‘How can he be so emotionally stupid?’, I remember Sir Michael Gambon told me that when he played King Lear he was terrified throughout. Obviously, though, if someone offered me five pounds a week to play Lear in Timbuktu I would do it…

So, you do regret it…
EP: Actually, I think I’ve taken the curse off King Lear in that I don’t really do it… But no, certainly not for the first year as I was too busy learning how to get my basic faculties back. I much prefer Cordelia, anyway: ‘Here I disclaim all my paternal care...’ It’s marvellous stuff! It reminds me that there is something gratifying in a family dispute, a kind of pleasure in coming up with all those cutting words.

Edward Petherbridge and Paul Hunter on Michael Vale's slanted stage.

What’s your relationship like in the play?
(Paul Hunter): My relationship with Edward mirrors that between Lear and the Fool, the Fool, as the only character in the play that’s honest with the King. King Lear’s Fool is a difficult character to play, and not a terribly funny one. So, in My Perfect Mind I play versions of the Fool, including Cordelia, a character that historically was played by the same person as the Fool. There’s a lot more comedy and warmth our relationship. It’s like, Laurel and Hardy if they come under attack it’s them against the world, so I’m trying desperately to help Edward do King Lear, I mess it up but the friendship is there.

So, what is the play about?
EP: We didn’t plan to bring up important issues – that was the last thing to occur to us. Whether it’s a play about survival, the human spirit, motherhood, fatherhood… we’ve been told that, and it may well be! But it wasn’t planned. It’s like… I remember being in a rehearsal with Sir Tom Stoppard who was directing one of his own plays, and the first thing he said was: ‘As you know, this is an existentialist play, but I’m chiefly concerned with where the laughs come…’ This is an existentialist comedy. Whatever that means.

PH: I think the best theatre has something very simple at its heart, and that’s what will resonate. I once took a show to Romania, it was a very simple story inspired by a couple of pages in 100 Years of Solitude and at the end we had people come to us and say: “I love this show, this is so about Romania…!”

EP: Or that short piece you took to Germany, Paul, and the audience sat through it in complete silence and then at the end… huge applause! Ten curtain calls!

Edward Petherbridge and Paul Hunter at the Teatre Lliure in Barcelona in November, 2014

Who’s it for?
PH: We thought there would be an older audience for Edward’s career. And usually the style of my own work attracts a 17 to 30-year-old audience. But it’s been incredibly mixed. It’s so playful and constantly surprises, and we have such fun doing it, that everyone seems engaged.

EP: And we often look out to the audience in the show so we can we see how they’re getting along. I mention an old actor at one point, Sir Donald Wolfit, and you can hear the ‘hums’ and ‘has’ of elderly recognition! Then another time a boy of about 7 spontaneously applauded one of the lines. It’s very flattering for an older actor to be admired by someone very young… someone who will live a long time and remember you, ideally.

What have you learnt from the experience?
EP: That I’m terribly, terribly lucky. There’s a line in King Lear: ‘They told me I was everything. ‘Tis a lie, I am not ague-proof‘. One has to realise that one is vulnerable… And this show, that happened by chance, is arguably the most redemptive thing to have come out of the experience of having a stroke.

PH: In the final act, when Lear says: ‘You have some cause, they have not.’ and Cordelia says: ‘No cause, no cause’. For me, that forgiveness and reconciliation, especially as you get older, strikes a chord.

Laurence Olivier as Othello, 1966

Laurence Olivier as Othello, 1966.

Tell us something inspiring about theatre!
PH: It’s fascinating how much trust an audience will place in theatre. At the beginning of the show I say to the audience: ‘Everything you are about to see is absolutely true’ and I’ve had people ask me later, ‘Did that really happen?’… Then there was one time Edward injured his knee and we had to change some bits, so I went out and apologised to the audience before the show. Then, at the end of that show, people came up to me and said: ‘I loved that part when you came out and … ‘; they thought it was part of it!

EP: I remember I was standing next to Sir Laurence Olivier on the first night of Othello… and I knew that he was nervous. But for that first speech, when Othello is wooing the senate, he has to be completely confident, and he went ever so slightly slower, and it was as if … you know, a Rolls Royce is meant to be a most wonderful car, and one thing you’re supposed to do is put a coin on it’s edge on the bonnet and start up the engine and the coin is not supposed to fall. Well, some gear deep in his own Rolls Royce shifted so he would not let that sixpence drop… Now that is what theatre is all about.

Interview by Alx Phillips / lfd.
Most of the pics: Manuel Harlan / Teatre Lliure. THANKS!
Click here for more info on My Perfect Mind – Told By An Idiot productions – directed by Kathryn Hunter