Told By An Idiot, a theatre company formed in the early 1990s, is one that likes to challenge itself and its audience. They eschew realism, encourage spontaneity and risk and look at life from a sideways perspective. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, they have a devoted following and it is good that they are now releasing their work on video to widen their appeal. First off the starting block is this two-hander from 2013 which is set firmly in the world of the theatre and recorded at the Young Vic.
At least some aspects of the narrative of My Perfect Mind are true. Classical actor Edward Petherbridge was due to play the lead in a New Zealand production of King Lear. Very early in rehearsals he had not one but two strokes in rapid succession which put paid to the production. Despite the bodily damage done the actor found he had fully retained the words (no mean feat in the best of circumstances) and that he still harboured a desire to take on the Everest of acting. He considered doing a one-man Lear but eventually found himself in a discussion with fellow actor Paul Hunter and between them they concocted a plan whereby Petherbridge would play Lear and Hunter would play all the other roles. Gradually this mutated into My Perfect Mind, a show about somebody not playing Lear.
It is clear from the extracts from Shakespeare’s play that pepper this show that Petherbridge would have made a very good fist of the role. He is commanding and regal yet at the same time touching even if the part is not fully formed; this is as it should be, as what we see is an actor preparing to play a role rather than fully inhabiting it. For most of the evening though, Petherbridge plays himself – or, at least, a fictionalised version of himself – having a great deal of fun at his own expense. Coming across as a bit of a “luvvie” he drapes his coat over his shoulders and swishes his actorly scarf making acerbic asides about the situations he finds himself in and remembering incidents from his past; in one joyous sequence he even plays his nine year old self winning a talent contest at Bridlington with a very twee song about a chicken. He is one of those actors who seems to make things effortless (though I’m sure it is actually all carefully controlled) and who remains eminently watchable. Petherbridge also demonstrates that he is a dab hand with a paint brush sketching out Goneril and Reagan in a few swift strokes.
As in the original concept for the piece Paul Hunter plays all the other roles – though they are not ones from Lear itself. Like Petherbridge, he is clearly having a whale of a time also demonstrating the ability to sketch things out in the form of a gallery of characters. The New Zealand director, an Irish taxi driver, Pertherbridge’s cleaning lady and his mother, a German doctor and even Laurence Olivier are brought to life with minimum costume changes. There’s a lovely running joke with his concern that some of his portrayals are “borderline offensive” (e.g. Sir Larry’s turn as Othello) which is a clever way of diffusing any uneasiness.
Staged with simplicity the set becomes a bit of a playground for the two actors to explore. The stage has a steep left to right rake suggestive of the tilted mind of Lear himself; the furniture therefore sometimes takes on a life of its own. There are also some very traditional sound effects machines for the climatic storm scene – as well as doing everything else Hunter also dashes around manically operating these. The action is choreographed by Kathryn Hunter – the only female actor to have played both Lear and the Fool – which lends the enterprise yet another interesting perspective.
It is the sort of show which probably pays repeated watching and is so much more rewarding if you know Shakespeare’s play quite well. It is gently humorous, playful, endlessly inventive and challenging even if, in Petherbridge’s own words you feel like you are “attending a seminar on King Lear under the influence of LSD”