King Lear, a much smaller local company was rehearsing a rival production. They had also recruited an English actor to play Lear, but Edward Petherbridge's hopes of giving McKellen a run for his money were crushed when he suffered a debilitating stroke a couple of days into rehearsals. Petherbridge recovered well enough to be back on stage a few years later in the disastrous musical The Fantasticks, where he co-starred with Paul Hunter and told him of his wish to attempt the role again, as a one-man show. Instead, the pair teamed up to create My Perfect Mind, a hectic look at Petherbridge, Lear, and how the stroke bound the two together, the character's lines surviving in the actor's memory even as the simplest daily tasks became impossible.
This isn't, though, a play about a man who's had a stroke. Told out of chronological order, we do find out the general events of Petherbridge's illness and recovery, but they're mixed in with memories from his childhood, extracts from Shakespeare's play, fantasies and plenty of theatrical namedropping, now that Petherbridge is in his "anecdotage."
Director Kathryn Hunter is possibly the only woman to have played both Lear and the Fool, so she brings a strong knowledge of the original text to the piece, but also holds back on the opportunity to cast the actors as those two characters: There are moments when the correlation becomes overt but they're actually pretty rare, and in a post-show Q&A tonight the actors said that there was a deliberate attempt not to have one of them be the straight man and the other the funnyman, both getting their chance to be silly. They also confirmed that though the show's structure and the majority of the dialogue is set, there's no fixed script and even after touring for a few months there's still an element of improvisation, of the performance being in a state of flux. Which is perhaps only right, given that it concerns a king whose mind is failing him, played by an actor whose mind fails him in a different way.
My Perfect Mind is more about theatre than it is about a man having a stroke - alongside the likes of Petherbridge's mother and his doctors, Hunter's comic characters also include a vision of Laurence Olivier, in blackface and a hunchback, having decided to play two of his most famous roles simultaneously. Michael Vale's sloping set becomes a character in itself, and its white spaces provide a canvas for the 76-year-old Petherbridge to demonstrate how much his motor functions have improved, in an electric scene of him confronting Lear's daughters while painting sketches of them on the back wall. Playful, funny and charming, My Perfect Mind is also characterised by the obvious affection between the two actors. Structurally it never really finds an identity but it's probably best seen as a very entertaining, moving dip into chaos, with some light at the end of the tunnel.
My Perfect Mind by Kathryn Hunter, Paul Hunter and Edward Petherbridge is booking until the 4th of May at the Old Vic's Maria.
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.