Michael Coveney: Petherbridge revives his vaudeville Lear, more Bard news from the RSC

”My Perfect Mind” returns to the Young Vic, while there are some strange things on the horizon in Stratford

Double act: Edward Petherbridge and Paul Hunter in My Perfect Mind
Double act: Edward Petherbridge and Paul Hunter in My Perfect Mind
© Manuel Harlan

Edward Petherbridge and Paul Hunter of Told by an Idiot have revived My Perfect Mind, their strange, and strangely beguiling, 90-minute vaudeville of King Lear at the Young Vic before embarking on a tour next month to Bristol, Leeds, Birmingham, Liverpool and Scarborough.

Don't miss it, is my advice, though you'll enjoy it all the more if you love your theatre history and see the funny side of Petherbridge pushing out a bird-sound Inca chant from The Royal Hunt of the Sun, and the coin-spinning existentialism of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (EP was the first G), or have relished his spindly, knuckle-cracking Newman Noggs in the RSC's Nicholas Nickleby.

Hunter plays the Fool to the Petherbridge Lear that never quite happened; hired as Lear in New Zealand seven years ago (he's now a youthful 78 years old), EP suffered a stroke in rehearsals and withdrew, recounting the whole experience in his baggy, unputdownable book of memoirs, Slim Chances, which he republished in expanded form (with CD) last year and which form the basis of Kathryn Hunter's production: after meeting and bonding with Paul Hunter (no relation to Kathryn, herself a quondam Lear) in a disastrous West End revival of The Fantasticks, the pair have subsumed that unhappy clowning episode in something more ethereal, more suggestive, and far more enjoyable.

We get several of the great speeches, delivered by EP with his trademark level-toned insouciance, while Hunter – recovering from a faintly embarrassing opening as a German quack in a bad wig; Lear as a medical specimen is a palpable shit – goads and chivvies at his elbow. They even recreate the talent show contest EP won as a child in Bridlington (he was born and raised in Bradford), with Hunter as a blazered, cheeky chappy emcee introducing the Warren family of judges: Alderman Fitz from Dick Whittington, Mary from The Crucible across the road at the Old Vic, and Mrs Warren taking a night off from her Profession.

The show is peppered with such carefree erudition and plenty of jibes about the National and the RSC, the greatness of Olivier, even the slapdash pretentiousness of this show itself; EP's ghostly daubs on the back panel he describes as "a bad day at Tate Modern" and the fashionably sloping truckle stage is derided as often as it is cleverly negotiated. What amazed me at the Young Vic last night was how a packed, and predominantly young, audience lapped it all up, even the nostalgic recherché-ness of EP's acidulous reminiscence.

"The new RSC season is altogether odd"

In his book, EP cites Vivien Leigh's view of speaking Shakespeare as like bathing in the sea and John Gielgud's of the confined discipline of "the pattern and symmetry of the verse" as constituting the dynamic paradox at the heart of acting Shakespeare. I sense he finds this missing in the contemporary RSC, and I think he's right. I wonder if he also considers that the RSC, about to revive next spring Arthur Miller's masterpiece Death of a Salesman with Antony Sher as Willy Loman (can't wait, myself) as an odd deviation from duty; the RSC always used to revive, and originate, modern drama at the Aldwych and the Barbican, but what exactly is the impulse behind, or indeed justification for, doing Miller in Stratford? It also looks like a copycat move to emulate Timothy Sheader's controversial new policy in Regent's Park, where Miller's The Crucible was a surprise (and hugely successful) early breaking of the Shakespearean mould.

The new RSC season is altogether odd. There's a new Merchant of Venice while their last revival of that play, directed by Rupert Goold, has been appropriated by Goold for his new Almeida season – exposing the lack of London exposure (pace Henry IV coming to the Barbican as part of the temporary three-year arrangement) for the full RSC Stratford output – and a new "colour blind" Othello will have a black Iago (the formidable Lucian Msamati) playing opposite Hugh Quarshie. In the Swan, John Ford's Jacobean tragedy Love's Sacrifice has been rescued from obscurity, according to The Times last Thursday, "after an X Factor-style competition between academics." Where's the passion, and the drive, to reanimate the Jacobethan repertoire from within the company? Good news, though, that Trevor Nunn is returning to the RSC Warwickshire base with Ben Jonson's Volpone starring Henry Goodman; their Young Vic collaboration on The Merchant yielded Goodman's greatest performance to date.

At least the RSC is being honest and open in its repertoire-forming methodology. I'm slightly shocked to see that the Tricycle has imported the Glasgow Citizens' terrific revival of Sam Shepard's True West without mentioning that company at all in its on sale programme material. The result is that reviews of the show in the Standard and Times have appeared without any proper acknowledgement; credit where credit's due, for heaven's sake.