My Perfect Mind at Plymouth Theatre Royal, Drum Theatre
HE'S performed with two of the world's leading companies and created one of the most famous roles in modern theatre.
Now after over 50 years on stage and screen Edward Petherbridge has a challenge that few actors face.
He is playing himself.
"That is the most delicate problem," he says of My Perfect Mind, "although one is always playing oneself and trying to get away with it."
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The "getting away with it" has included being part of Lawrence Olivier's National Theatre Company, founding a group with (now Sir) Ian McKellen, and being the first Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Edward has been a leading actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company and was Newman Noggs in one of the landmarks in British theatre of the last 60 years, the RSC's 8½-hour Nicholas Nickleby. In the 1980s came his greatest TV exposure as Peter Wimsey in the Dorothy L Sayers Mysteries on the BBC.
In 2007 he was about to play the title role in King Lear when he fell ill during rehearsals. A stroke left him unable to move his thumb and forefinger together. And yet he still had the entire role word for word.
My Perfect Mind tells the story, blurring events from that life-changing period and moments from King Lear. The two-hander – co-produced by the Theatre Royal's second space, the Drum – also features Paul Hunter playing everyone from Edward's hospital consultant to Lear's fool.
Paul, of highly inventive company Told By An Idiot, was in a play with Edward when the actor, by then greatly recovered, recounted his tale.
"Paul said, 'Oh my goodness! What a story! I think there's an extraordinary show in there'," Edward recalls. And so the work, also co-produced by Told By An Idiot and the Young Vic, was born.
"It moves from farce to light comedy," Edward adds smartly, dispelling the idea that this exploration of human spirit is depressing or "worthy".
The light touch continues through to the production which is still being worked on and includes improvisation.
"For me the key thing is not to take oneself too seriously. The only jokes that work are about things that are really important: liberty, loss, identity.
"It might send people home at the interval or might get them to come back again another night.
"Either way, each night will be different. We will reserve the best jokes and get rid of the ones that don't work."
The other challenge is for the director, Kathryn Hunter .
"She is very tactful without appearing to be so," says Edward. "If she appears tactful, you are in trouble."
Tact hasn't always been Edward's watchword. If he doesn't like something he will say so – and has been known not tolerate others' mistakes. Or at least not their sense of colour.
He recalls one of his many previous visits to Plymouth in the days of the Hoe Theatre when he played Prospero in The Tempest.
"The stage was tiny and had a quite awful background of yellow and white squares. It was like a TV game show.
"So after one matinee I went out and bought some tins of pure white and painted over it myself.
"We did the evening performance with the place smelling of wet paint."
He has no plans to change the Drum colour scheme, although if he did care to, he could. His recovery from the stroke has been complete, bar a couple of minor difficulties.
"I used to have flash handwriting but it is not what it was," he says.
"Nor is my dancing. But that is only to be expected at 76."
And he was aware that things might have been much worse.
"My poor mother had a stroke just before I was born. It left her right side paralysed and her speech permanently impaired."
My Perfect Mind runs at the Drum, Theatre Royal Plymouth, from next Thursday to Saturday, March 2.