Images: Manuel Harlan
In 2007, classically trained actor Edward Petherbridge suffered two strokes while preparing to play King Lear in New Zealand. The attacks left him partially paralysed, and put the role of a lifetime out of the question. Yet, remarkably, Petherbridge could still remember every single one of Lear’s lines.
Seven years later and fully recovered, Petherbridge portrays both himself and Lear in a play about how he never got to play Lear – to delightful effect. He is accompanied onstage by Paul Hunter in a one-man kaleidoscope of supporting roles, some of which are more pertinent than others. A framing device involving a comically-accented German psychiatrist who believes he is treating Petherbridge/Lear doesn’t feel entirely necessary, but Hunter’s other scenes as characters ranging from Laurence Olivier to Petherbridge’s mother (who herself suffered a stroke two days before her son was born) are as tender and witty as we would hope from Lear’s wise Fool.
But of course this is Petherbridge’s story, and he tells is beautifully. Slipping mercurially between his gracefully self-deprecating self-portrait and his frail, heartwrenching Lear, he is ever the centre of the jauntily tilted stage on which the play is unfolds. When he hears out of the blue that he has been selected by a theatre company on the other side of the world to play the role that every mature male thespian (and a few female ones, including this show’s director) must dream of, his expression is so touched and astonished one almost can’t bear to imagine the tragedy to come, let alone watch it happen.
Thankfully, this is a play that refuses not to see the funny side. The show is packed wall-to-wall with meta-theatrical in-jokes and parodies of prominent theatrical figures, and the production only ever stumbles in its occasionally sudden shifts from farce to pathos, such as when a comedic sequence is swiftly followed by Petherbridge re-enacting the moment when, with the use of only one arm, one leg and half of his mouth, he had to drag himself to the telephone to ask for an ambulance.
Unassailable however are Petherbridge’s bursts of Shakespeare. He laments that while Lear is an “oak” he is “only a yew,” but he shows us how memorable a Yew tree Lear could be. Here’s hoping he gets the chance to play the role in full.