Edward Petherbridge is a fine old actor of 78 years.
In 2007, shortly before he opened as King Lear in New Zealand, he suffered a major stroke. His body was temporarily paralysed, but his mind wasn’t. He could still remember every one of Shakespeare’s lines.
He’s now fully recovered and sprightly with it – and is retelling his strange story live, on a sharply raked stage, with the “Told By An Idiot” theatre company….which has snuck into Birmingham Rep’s ‘Door’ this week, apparently by the tradesman’s entrance.
There are two Lears in evidence here. We get decent chunks of The Bard; impeccably acted by Petherbridge himself, with his sole stage companion Paul Hunter playing his Fool, his daughter and everything else. But there are shades of Edward Lear too. For it would be an evening of delightful, utter nonsense – if only it wasn’t largely true.
Director Kathryn Hunter (who has also played a notable King Lear) seems to have torn all the pages out of Petherbridge’s autobiography and strewn them haphazardly. The rules are binned. We get all the right moments …. but not necessarily in the right order. And the absurdity – to any student of the theatre – is hilarious.
Petherbridge slopes around like an addled old lovie, taking the rise out of himself at every opportunity. He dispenses wonderful witticisms and about how he once reduced a reviewer to gnawing his own kneecaps; and how the best advice he can offer to anyone unfortunate enough to be cast as King Lear is to find a light Cordelia.
With a face deader than a pan, he describes once being offered a vignette; “which is one down from a cameo”. Then he chucks paint across the back wall and throws away a line about how it resembles “another bad day at the Ikon Gallery”. The Birmingham audience was in hoots of love and laughter.
His sidekick Paul Hunter, by contrast, dashes dementedly around…plugging all Petherbridge’s gaps. One of the most memorable revelations concerns Petherbridge’s Rumanian cleaner, who turns out to have been a lecturer in Shakespeare, back home. A wig and a Hoover do the trick. And when it comes to the climactic scene upon Lear’s blasted heath, the two men create a perfect storm with paint, props and old-fashioned sound effects.
There’s a casual spontaneousness about the whole show; yet it runs like clockwork and you sense that even the most outrageous adlibs have been carefully honed.
It’s all marvellous, madly brilliant stuff; almost meaningless to someone who’s never been to the theatre, but an absolute treat to those of us who can’t keep out of them.