When a stroke prevented Edward Petherbridge from playing one of the greatest roles in Shakespeare, he decided to create a show about it, he tells Laura Davis
KING LEAR is one of those once-in-a-lifetime roles, a part for which you long from an age far too young to play it. So what happens if just days before you’re due on stage – lines learned, life-long ambition on the cusp of being realised – something happens to stop you?
If you’re Edward Petherbridge, Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre veteran, you create a show about it. In his case a two-hander with Paul Hunter, director of theatre company Told By An Idiot, playing everyone who isn’t him.
The lines from Lear, you keep for yourself.
“When we open, what’s to stop me once I start on the Lear bits from going on and on and on?” jokes the 76-year-old.
“Nobody could stop me, could they? They’d have to carry me off the stage!”
It was after the second day of rehearsals in New Zealand that Petherbridge suffered the stroke which prevented him from playing the coveted role in the first place.
It left him unable to move his right hand so could not write and, although he could still see, he couldn’t read.
He got through three weeks in the hospital by listening to classical music on the BBC World Service, which he is convinced kept his mind stimulated at a crucial time.
And because he had spent months committing Lear to memory, rehearsing lines under the lilac tree in his garden, he could remember Shakespeare’s words.
At first though, Bradford-born Petherbridge gave little thought to the role which had been snatched away.
“I learned at the time that the synapses of the brain that generate regret are often disabled by a stroke or brain damage and I certainly didn’t have time to spend mooning over the fact that I wasn’t going to do it,” he says.
“I was too busy trying to rehabilitate myself.
“My poor mother had a stroke two days before I was born. She was rather a heroine. Being a working-class family she didn’t have any help and she did absolutely everything. She was a shining example to me.”