Edward Petherbridge at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Edward Petherbridge and Paul Hunter
Edward Petherbridge and Paul Hunter

To the books whose titles start 1001 ... Before You Die should be added ‘Actors to See’ and top of the list should be Edward Petherbridge.

The Bradford-born 78-year-old is one of a diminishing breed – ranked with the late Olivier, Richardson, Gielgud, Michael Hordern and Donald Sinden. Of actors living Michael Gambon is a good comparison.

What they had (in Gambon’s case has) which Petherbridge has not, is a title. Why not is a question for the honours-givers.

Petherbridge is repertory trained who can turn his hand to everything from Shakespeare to Stoppard.

In fact he was in rep at the then Royal Opera House in Scarborough in 1957 – in a season of plays no-one now remembers. They included Tell-Tale Murder by Philip Weathers and Relations are Best Apart by Edwin Lewis.

On television he is best known as Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy L Sayer’s suave amatuer sleuth.

He acts, paints, writes poetry, prose and blogs – he has style, class, elan – he does, as his co-star in My Perfect Mind Paul Hunter said, cut quite a dash (check out the picture of him complete with mane of white hair, full beard and tash, leather jacket and denims on his website).

Petherbridge earned his spurs as part of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre company in the 1960s and as a mainstay of the Royal Shakespeare Company from the 1970s. He formed the Actors’ Company with Sir Ian McKellen, played Newman Noggs in Nicholas Nickleby in the West End and on Broadway, has won an Olivier Award and was the original Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Not surprising then he was eventually offered the chance to do Shakespeare’s King Lear – every classical actor’s ambition. That was in 2007.

But it was not to be. He went to New Zealand to prepare to play the lead role. But at the end of the second day, he suffered his first stroke. He was able to crawl across his hotel room and call an ambulance.

Less than 24 hours later he suffered a second stroke which left him barely able to move but his speech and mind unimpaired – and remembering every word of the Bard’s epic.

“I couldn’t put two fingers together,” said Petherbridge, “I had a mountain to climb. I had to relearn everything.” He painted self-portraits, wrote a poem every day, and read lines from the phone book – “to get my brain eye and mouth connected” to deliver a tribute to Olivier on the Lytletton stage of the National Theatre. His only mistake was to say “Romeo” instead of “Lear”.

“I never thought I wouldn’t be able to work again.”

It is his ‘not playing Lear’ and why which led him and Paul and his wife Kathryn Hunter to devise My Perfect Mind.

Paul Hunter, founder of Told by An Idiot theatre company, and Petherbridge met when both starred in the musical The Fantasticks – which was, apart from their double act as cranky actor and his fool – universally panned.

“I suppose we shone like a good deed in a dusty world,” said Petherbridge and the two men became friends.

When Petherbridge suggested they did a two-man Lear, Hunter said there was a more interesting story to be told about Petherbridge not playing the role. Petherbridge plays himself and Hunter plays his mother, brother, driver, Cordelia and a host of other characters in the play.

Forget ‘maudlin’, ‘depressing’ or a docu-mentary-style success in the face of adversity play – My Perfect Mind is said the co-horts funny and ultimately uplifitng.

It is Petherbridge’s story told in an absurd, inventive and affectionate way. The actor describes it as taking “bits of my life and shaking them up in a kind of kaleidoscope”, or like “attending a seminar on King Lear under the influence of LSD”.

It includes a trip to Bridlington – his mother found the steep hills of Scarborough too much – at the age of nine where he entered a talent show.

He sang Chickerty Chick and thought he would win. “I didn’t,” he sighed, “I came second.”

My Perfect Mind runs at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from Tuesday November 11 to Saturday November 15. Performances are daily at 7.45pm except the Thursday when the show starts at 7.15pm. Matinees on Thursday at 1.45pm and Saturday at 2.45pm.

Edward Petherbridge will also be in conversation after the Saturday matinee at 4.30pm