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Robin Williams - imagined Lear

Adrian Hilton is a conservative academic, theologian and educationalist.

“…that shrewd and knavish sprite/ Call’d Robin”, I tweeted on the #nothingescapesshakespeare hashtag I seem to share with my fellow Bardophile Dan Hannan, when I heard the sad news that Robin Williams was dead. I guess for a certain generation (i.e. mine) he will always be the zany, elfin Mork from Ork, transmitting wry observations about the human condition (i.e. American culture) to his humourless supervisor Orson – “Nanoo Nannoo”. The TV series went stratospheric in the late 70s, and a lot of casting thereafter was done to feed Williams’s whirlwind appetite for comedy – DJ Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam, Armand in The Birdcage, or the explosive voice of the Genie in Aladdin, much of which was improvised. Every performance was a spontaneous cyclone of craziness and enthusiasm for life.

He didn’t do much serious theatre. His 1988 Broadway performance as Estragon to Steve Martin’s Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was a rare epiphany. But there was an inescapable Chaplin trampishness about it. Had he ever turned to the classics, he’d have made a spritely Puck, a knavish Bottom or a natural motley-clad Shakespearean fool, wryly observing life with a donnish “Pray, forsooth” and a witty deconstruction of the social order with “Well, well, we know” or “We could an if we would”. He’d have been a pleasure to work with, but a nightmare to direct, no doubt: his whole art was the antithesis of Hamlet’s advice to “let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them”. Speaking of Hamlet, he comprehensively upstaged Kenneth Branagh’s fencing duel with Laertes when he turned the spear-carrying courtier Osric into a virtuoso cameo of facial gestures and eye antics.

It’s a pity Robin Williams never played the Dane himself. Or the King. Or any king, for that matter. He did perform a stand-up version of what he called “Shakespeare’s only unknown play, So That’s The Way You Lick It.” It’s on YouTube. So is a 1991 interview by Johnny Carson on “Shakespeare stuff”, which includes his fantasy casting of the role of Hamlet – Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson, Jack Nicholson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his best Terminator voice: “I’m back. Watch out, Denmark.” It’s a rat-a-tat-tat of childlike bumbling. He was a performing prodigy with a fathomless imagination that streamed with invention.

But that genius could also do passion, destruction, tenderness and melancholy. He could rise to outlandish hilarity and fall to the depths of Oedipal tragedy within minutes – Patch Adams, The Fisher King, Awakenings, Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting… all steeped with hints of schizophrenia tormented by the dark shadows of introspection. As film director Chris Columbus said: “His performances were unlike anything any of us had ever seen; they came from some spiritual and otherworldly place.” And that noetic pulse of transience was his genius. He had a cosmic soul that sang a song for all seasons.

There will always be a very special place in my innate pedagogical heart for his maverick English teacher John Keating. But my favourite film of his is the little-known and much derided fantasy What Dreams May Come. Not many have seen or even heard about it, despite it winning an Academy Award for the breath-taking beauty of it visual effects. It deals with mental breakdown, exploring the metaphysics of death, heaven, purgatory and hell. From an idyllic life – “a soul in bliss” – to the torture of being “bound/ Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears/ Do scald like molten lead.” This film convinced me long ago that Robin Williams would make an extraordinary Lear. The hairs on the back of my neck still rise thinking about it.

And so I was pursuing the project, and had proposed that he make his West End debut in 2016, which will be the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. We had exchanged a few ideas: the angle would have been an exploration of the onset of dementia, perched somewhere between Cinderella and Game of Thrones. Due to filming commitments, discussions were paused. I never got to look into his eyes, but in his voice you could sense a world-weariness and the inescapable presence of ghosts. I was in talks with designers, and had lured my preferred composer. I was just waiting to hear from the King I could see in my mind’s eye: “O Captain! My Captain!”

The revelation a few days ago that he was actually suffering the early onset of Parkinson’s now puts my dream in a different sleep.

Falstaff must be fat, Romeo pretty, Pantalone stilted and Quasimodo grotesque. Some directors cast an actor the moment they walk through a door. Sadly, no one important enough ever thought to cast Robin Williams as a schizoid Hamlet in the 1980s or a deranged Lear even five years ago. Perhaps in too many eyes he was a celluloid stand-up; a “ha ha, yeah, yeah” Bottom who made people laugh by just making a Manhattan cocktail. His characters had become masks to hide behind. His squeaky voices, silly walks, make-up and prosthetics were the outer representation of an inner determination. But Renaissance verse? Elizabethan song? Shakespearean subtlety and Marlovian bombast? If only his subconscious anguish could have been unleashed onstage, we would have seen comic demons, tortured princes and monarchs to behold the swelling scene. What memories, what sounds, what sights, what tears, what cheers – we’ll never know.

We are such stuff as dreams are made on.

Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

18 comments for: Adrian Hilton: If Robin Williams had played King Lear…

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