by Kathleen Riley
Th’untuned and jarring senses, O, wind up
Of this child-changed father.
King Lear, Act IV, sc. Vii
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow
But yet the body is his book.
After a limited national tour, My Perfect Mind is about to open at London’s Young Vic, an appropriately adventurous venue for so bold an experiment and just over 100 yards from where, forty-six years ago next month, Edward Petherbridge created the role of Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The link between the two plays is not merely geographic; each is an ingenious sideways look at Shakespeare, centred on a compelling double act that, like most great double acts, is both comic and touching.
The ‘script’ of My Perfect Mind evolved almost entirely through improvisation and continues its evolution within a carefully plotted, finely honed structure. In a sense, it is one long, beautifully crafted riff. It is also a genuinely collaborative piece, one of the collaborators being William Shakespeare. The show fuses two main plots into one unique entity: the story of Shakespeare’s King Lear and that of the stroke which prevented Edward Petherbridge, on the eve of his 71st birthday, from playing the part of a lifetime. It is the stuff of two tragedies, you might say, but forged, in the rehearsal-room crucible of creativity, into the precious metal of comedy.
It is a remarkable show and one to which I feel a very personal connection. As Edward’s friend and the editor of his book, Slim Chances and Unscheduled Appearances, I am intimately acquainted with the ‘backstory’. As script consultant, I have been privileged to see the show develop from a speculative suggestion to a fully fledged creation that, in its own understated and sure-footed way, is carving its special niche in theatre history.
My Perfect Mind is a strange and beguiling theatrical hybrid, something utterly new yet profoundly implicated in an ancient mythological and dramaturgical tradition; something intensely particular yet with potent universal resonance. C. E. Montague once wrote of playgoers at Stratford’s Memorial Theatre:
The space between them and the actors is not the non-conductor of emotion that it often seems to be elsewhere; it quivers with communicative quickness; you do not have a sense that artist’s intention and public’s perception are fumbling for each other in a dark room; you feel the stir of a common intellectual excitement changing all the hard disparate atoms in the auditorium into one quickened brain … you feel a whole audience to be delightedly tasting flavours and valuing qualities in what they hear.
In the Drum Theatre at Plymouth I witnessed a similar phenomenon. It was as though a new theatrical language had been invented but one in which the audience was innately schooled, with which they had a rare and immediate affinity. For they recognized, both in Edward’s story and Lear’s, something fundamentally human.
What I offer here is not a review but a personal perspective and appreciation of the show’s essence and the imaginative intersections between its two ‘texts’.
In June 2007, at the invitation of a New Zealand theatre company called The Bacchanals, Edward flew to Wellington to begin rehearsals for King Lear. After the second day’s rehearsal, he suffered a stroke in the middle of the night and collapsed in his hotel room. Two days later a second, more debilitating stroke followed, affecting his sight and his ability to walk and to hold a pen. With Lear no longer possible, Edward’s creative horizons drastically and necessarily narrowed; in place of the ancient British monarch’s desolate, storm-racked heath, a whole other, more circumscribed landscape had to be traversed and a new set of challenges negotiated, ‘turns’ of a commonplace rather than cosmic variety, as defined in his poem ‘An Actor Repairs’:
Wringing dishcloths, pegging out
Grasping knobs and turning keys
Performing turns now such as these
Exercise my sluggish fingers.
Faintly though, the notion lingers –
Cosmic motion is my business
Not pegs and keys and wringing out
My turn was Lear’s redemptive rout
Hanging out with Fool in storm
Extremis was to be my norm
Eight performances a week
Everest my peak.
Edward’s first return to eight performances a week was in a short-lived West End production of the long-running off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks in which he played, hilariously and poignantly, the Old Actor, a tatterdemalion strolling player, a failed and forgetful Thespic alchemist clinging, with a certain magnificence, to dubious past glories. Serendipitously he was paired in this role with a born clown, Paul Hunter, co-founder of Told by and Idiot, a company with a now twenty-year history of invention and disciplined anarchy. This unlikely comic duo ‘kick[ed] the show deliciously off kilter’ and inspired critical comparisons with Beckett’s tramps and the Bard’s Lear and Fool.
Lear himself, however, remained unfinished business. In the wake of The Fantasticks, Edward conceived the idea of a pocket or ‘kitchen-table’ version of King Lear, a two-man exploration of Shakespeare’s tragedy, in which he would play the King and Paul all the other parts. It would be Lear both in miniature and under a magnifying glass. But in the story of Edward’s stroke and his not doing Lear, Paul discerned the seeds of something potentially more interesting. Under the auspices of Told by an Idiot, the two set about experimenting and were eventually joined by a director (Kathryn Hunter) and a designer (Michael Vale) attuned to the spirit and regimen of serious play that characterized the initial workshops (or R&D) and later the rehearsals.
Through the kaleidoscope
To characterize, stylistically and structurally, the outcome of this experiment is not so easy. Perhaps the best description is kaleidoscopic. The show takes fragments of Edward’s life and, like a kaleidoscope, it reflects and refracts reality, yielding colourful patterns which, though they shift with each turn, have a beautiful symmetry and internal logic, a simplicity as well as an intricacy. In its breakneck yet delightfully discursive journey through Edward’s past and present, the transitions between scenes, and between different layers of reality, are appropriately synaptic. Its dramatis personae enter and exit in a way reminiscent of the dreamlike comings and goings of Pirandello’s characters. These personae include real-life figures such as Laurence Olivier, in his role as inaugural director of the National Theatre, and Edward’s mother, who two days before he was born suffered a stroke from which she only partially recovered and who, although she makes just three brief appearances, is implicitly the heroine of the piece. In a show that plays constantly with notions of Truth and the parameters of fact and fiction, they are fearlessly wild, fantastical approximations of the real people, but they have nonetheless a curious credibility, even authenticity. Edward’s persona, too, is a conscious, cleverly constructed approximation of his true self.
If, as Edward has quipped, Pirandello along with Strindberg’s Dream Play, are left gasping at the proscenium arch, we the audience are left gasping at the sheer imaginative feat the two actors accomplish. On a severe and stark-white rake, and with minimal props and subtle costume changes, they conjure up vastly different worlds and situations. It is the apotheosis of Alexandre Dumas’s ‘four trestles, four boards, two actors, and a passion.’ Something in the actors’ sincerity and openness, and in their inner truth, allows us genuinely to believe in Paul as Edward’s mother and in Edward as his nine-year-old self singing ‘Chickery Chick’ at the Bridlington Pavilion. We might also marvel at the courage it took to translate this particular true story to the stage. As one American lady, who saw the show in Liverpool, said to Edward, ‘Thanks for putting yourself on the line.’
The kaleidoscopic patterns are, of course, composed, not only of fragments of Edward’s life, but also of significant shards of King Lear. The two stories do not run in parallel; rather they continually intersect or collide. No attempt is made to portray Lear as a stroke victim or to claim for Edward’s plight a tragic grandiloquence. The narrative of Edward’s stroke and recovery is loosely chronological, while the Lear narrative, condensed and distilled to its essence of personal and domestic tragedy, is more linear. Despite the surreal contexts created for them, the Shakespearean passages are entered wholeheartedly and emerge with an unusual clarity, an unexpected purity. We begin to hear Lear’s words in a new and illuminating way, for example when Edward delivers the King’s famous prayer of growing self-knowledge, ‘Poor naked wretches’, as a recitation by his nine-year-old self.
The combination or collision of these two worlds and two identities is arguably a greater undertaking than Lear played ‘straight’.
Told by an Idiot’s artistic policy is ‘to explore the human condition by celebrating and revelling in a style of theatre that is bigger than life. The company seeks to acknowledge the artifice of theatre and makes no attempt to put reality on stage. We remain, however, fascinated by the fine line between comedy and tragedy that exists in the real world.’ In My Perfect Mind, the line between comedy and tragedy is at its finest, or possibly irrelevant. An extraordinary mergence of the two vocabularies, the two sensibilities occurs, one that is wholly faithful to Shakespeare’s play. In a letter to his biographer Archibald Henderson, Bernard Shaw observed: ‘[In King Lear] we find the alternation of tragic and funny dropped for an actual interweaving of the two; so that we have the tragic and the comic simultaneously, each heightening the other with a poignancy otherwise unattainable.’ This poignant mutual heightening is precisely the achievement of My Perfect Mind, in which robust comic energy and playfulness coalesce with, and render oddly more meaningful, tragic pathos.
The interweaving Shaw spoke of, Albert Bermel later christened ‘comic agony’. Bermel distinguished this from ‘tragicomedy’, which merely alternates modes, achieving no fusion. More recently, John Lennard has added a further distinction, that of comedic agony, ‘where the structures of comedy as a genre celebrating survival and procreation are harnessed to deathly, childless ends.’ In My Perfect Mind, the epitome of comic agony, we have the inverse of comedic agony – tragedy harnessed to life-loving ends, to a celebration of survival and human creativity.
Part of King Lear’s dramatic inheritance is a play about another mad king, Euripides’ Herakles, in which, at the moment of his greatest triumph, Greece’s most celebrated hero is struck down by a supernaturally imposed madness and forced to murder his wife and children. On waking from his madness and being made to realize what he has done, Herakles resolves to commit suicide, but through a deeper resolve and the unconditional love offered by his father Amphitryon and friend Theseus, he finds the courage to ‘endure life’. From Seneca onwards, playwrights and directors, who have approached the play, have focused their attention on the explosive madness, seeking to rationalize it in psychological terms. But the point of the play lies in what cannot be reasoned, that is, the existence of unconditional love, and in the radical possibility of forgiveness and rehabilitation.
Like Herakles, Shakespeare’s Lear experiences a katabasis (descent) into madness, a painful anagnorisis (recognition) of self, and finally a spiritual nostos (journey home) achieved through human philia (love and friendship). Both are child-changed fathers. In My Perfect Mind we have at least a symbolic katabasis in the open trap, which at one point assumes the status of an underworld or afterworld. More importantly, we have at the play’s core a nostos, a journey home that encompasses several destinations: Bradford, West Hampstead, Lear, the stage itself … made possible through an inner resolve and through philia. Intrinsic to Edward’s journey home is the love offered by family members, those who in the show are fleetingly and fantastically sketched (Mother and brother Bill) and those who are tacitly present (his wife and children). And in the effective and affecting partnership between Edward’s Lear and Paul’s Fool we discover a fresh appreciation of what Macready restored to the stage in the 1830s, the toughness and tenderness of the Fool’s devotion. As John Forster perceived, the Fool ‘is interwoven with Lear – he is the link that still associates him with Cordelia’s love, and the presence of the regal state he has surrendered.’
Like Herakles, My Perfect Mind is essentially about rehabilitation, about the restoration rather than the loss of self. It dramatizes, however comically and surreally, hope and a kind of salvation. William Arrowsmith, one of the twentieth century’s most influential theorists and exponents of translation, described Herakles as ‘a play which imposes suffering upon men as their tragic condition, but it also discovers a courage equal to that necessity, a courage founded on love.’ The same may be said of King Lear, in spite of the nihilistic bleakness of its ‘promised end’, which for a century and a half was considered too unbearable to be staged. There is no happy ending for Shakespeare’s Lear and Cordelia but the play’s final tableau is nevertheless a declaration of transcendent love in the midst of insupportable fortune; as Reuben Brower notes, ‘Lear dies loving and looking for life’. In My Perfect Mind we get a real-life happy ending, encapsulated in Edward’s final, focused hand gesture. It is a moment delicately underplayed, free of mawkish sentiment, but memorably moving in its affirmation of life and the healing power of art.
In his Nobel Lecture of 1995, Seamus Heaney, himself a recent stroke survivor, spoke of poetry as a redemptive realignment of the human imagination, a re-tuning of the senses, and ultimately as a verification of the fragility and strength of our humanity:
I credit poetry … both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference. … Poetic form is both the ship and the anchor. It is at once a buoyancy and a steadying, allowing for the simultaneous gratification of whatever is centrifugal and whatever is centripetal in mind and body. And it is by such means that Yeats’s work does what the necessary poetry always does, which is to touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic nature of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed. The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.
What My Perfect Mind shows us is how theatre, or indeed any creative act, has the same redemptive, regenerative capacity, confirms us in our humanity and is, in fact, a small miracle. The important thing is to keep loving and looking for life.