The 2016 Hostry Festival production of the 1994 original play by Melvyn Bragg has been revised by Melvyn with suggestions by Stash Kirkbride, who directed this version, and one of the principal actors, Peter Barrow. The result is a play that positively zips along, in just 90 minutes without a break, with two outstanding performances from Louis Hilyer playing Robert and Rebecca Chapman as Jackie, who set the depth and drama of Shakespeare against the gossip and glamour of Hollywood.
The other starring role in King Lear in New York goes to drink, for it is a dysfunctional family tragic-comedy with father, daughter, and brother, ex-wives and ex-lovers, and a prominent role for the not so on-off relationship with alcohol.
Modelled on Richard Burton’s own demons – drink and women, as Bragg admits, having also authored his biography, Richard Burton: A Life. Burton said, himself, that he turned to drink to “burn up the flatness, the stale, empty, dull deadness that one feels when one goes offstage.”
“I was fairly sloshed for five years. I was up there with John Barrymore and Robert Newton. The ghosts of them were looking over my shoulder.” – Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and Oliver Reed, by Robert Sellers, p145 (2009)
Burton of course, never played King Lear, only King John, and whilst wanting to play Macbeth to spite Laurence Olivier, in a film version, never achieved that either. This play imagines a type of Burton before opening King Lear, albeit in off-off-Broadway.
Melvyn was in town on Wednesday to see the new version and take a Q&A on it. He was asked about the cutting and editing process, that included the removal on one character in their entirety. Personally, I don’t feel the daughter’s addiction is fully sold to us, indeed there’s enough broken family angst between father and daughter, even without her addiction to drugs paralleling her father’s to drink. Melvyn was keen to present her fragility and yet, unlike Lear, portray redemption and rescue.
There is a cracking score of music and storm effects, projected New York backdrops, vintage ‘brick’ phones and, I think I spotted a Dalwhinnie whisky centre stage, alongside the Jack Daniels and plenty more drink besides, on the permanently-on-stage cocktail mini-bar. More likely to have been cold tea or coloured water than the marvellous amber single malt nectar. Peter Barrow holds the stage alone at first, almost making one wonder if we are watching a 1980-90s Wall Street drama.
Before any chance of settling in, there was an early dramatic entrance by Robert, amidst a cacophonic clatter and clink, rather alarming the back row, and one wondered whether this was going to be a cross between Withnail and I and Waiting for Godot, or perhaps even Whisky Galore! The entry brings wine and JD to join the already well-lubricated ‘actor-playing-an-actor’ on stage who is on the knife-edge of a return to fame or floundering as a washed-up thespian wannabe.
As if his drink and acting problems weren’t enough, he has broken relationships with his daughter Julie played with teen-twenty angst by Nina Taylor and ex-lovers to manage. Rebeccas Aldred and Chapman squared off with each other, arguing over Robert, his career, and his affections. Aldred was an excellent foil to Chapman, an in her role was equally torn between her allegiances and hopes for Robert.
All that, and King Lear too? A knowing audience would be left wondering how far the play within, or rather before, a play will ape Shakespeare’s own and be a full-on tragedy and no mere storm in a whisky glass.
King Lear faced the challenge of dividing his realm between his three daughters, with the lion’s share going to the one who loved him most. In this play, there are more than three rival and competing loves. Dialogue and drama swing between the paternal love of his daughter, fraternal to his brother, and erotic – and there are a few good speeches about that in the play with regard to ex-lovers. Excusing his past loves as natural processes, defending the self-acknowledged Lotharian love rat that he was/is, he expounds on ‘what is love?’ Or rather, on sex – “Sex is like emptying your bladder.” Though, the full “repertoire of love [is] grander than a cathedral organ.”
Then there’s the titanic struggle between the allure of Hollywood and the age-old stage actor’s dream of Shakespearian challenge. A challenge, that the role of Robert is simultaneously tempted and tortured by, not to mention taunting by his ex-lovers. Whether an actor will ‘die’ on stage is part of the attraction he says. But one day and one death on stage would also kill his Hollywood resurrection, the others counter with. In the play’s first outing in 1994, one reviewer described Kate O’Mara in Jackie’s role as “horny for disaster”, Chapman, instead, seems to desire either his success or failure, but nothing in-between.
Life is an act. “He is him when he is most someone else”, the actor’s brother says, even the agent has to ‘act’ on his behalf. We are all the great pretenders, performing our ‘lie-dentities’. Whether in life or on the stage, we are actors in our own dramas.
This drama is part sitcom, part tragedy, but fully engaging. Torn between multiple loves, do we love it? In the context of the play, it might be pushing it to say addictive, but the editors seem to have got the revision just about right. Quitting Shakespeare is as hard as quitting drink, it is as much a drug to its proponents as the skin-deep glamour and glitz of Hollywood celebrity. The play expertly channels King Lear through the funnel of boozy dysfunctionality of its players. Louis Hilyer is Shakespearean and Rebecca Chapman revels in exuding the worst of Hollywood and TV chat shows, even reeling in the excellent Rebecca Aldred as Bett. The play is certainly worth a second visit after 20 years and maybe even a second visit this week. Norwich’s Hostry Festival event is certainly off-off-off Broadway, and deserves greater visibility.
Saddened, shocked, but not sure I was surprised. Such was the sudden news of Robin Williams‘ apparent suicide at 63 that the Internet was awash with rumours last night that it was a ruse, a fake story. Details emerged overnight (British time) that he had indeed been found dead at home in Marin County, California, apparently having taken his own life. The latest information is that “Marin county sheriff’s department lieutenant Keith Boyd confirmed that Williams was discovered hanged, and had apparently attempted to cut his wrists.”
Owing to considerable empathy with his bipolar depression, this is a tough article to write in memoriam to the wonderful Robin Williams, who I first watched aged 11 when he appeared as the alien Mork. Sadly he has returned to his home planet and left us the poorer, but we have over a 100 films and thousands of laughs to remember him by and the challenge to understand mental illness better over our lifetimes.
Update (11 August 2015): It is now a year to the day that Robin Williams passed on and he still makes me laugh and cry in equal measure and continues to inspire whether in life or role.
Films and Characters
Last night I was preparing to watch The Birdcage film with my partner and a friend. We never got round to it, though I’d loaded it into the DVD up to the opening scene. It’s now set for a memorial movie night with the memorable Armand. He was so versatile, able to play funny, straight, sad, young, old, real, fantasy, even a penguin or two in Happy Feet as the voices of Ramón and Lovelace.
Of his co-star in Happy Feet Two, ‘La Toti’ Sofía Vergara, Williams said“I’d walk 50 miles in the snow just to stand in her garbage … and I cleaned up that line!”
Williams appeared in over 100 films, as well as television and theatre, so versatile were the roles that he played. Whether as Mork or Peter Pan, he always looked like he would never grow up and would live forever – one reason we, as adoring fans, all feel the wrench of his going now.
Perhaps, most memorable for me, was Mrs Doubtfire, and the agony of a father doing anything to get close to his kids. Its long-posited sequel Mrs Doubtfire 2 will presumably now no longer be made.
He was scheduled to appear in several unfinished films, but one that just made it to completion and was screened this summer at the Los Angeles Outfest Film Festival is Boulevard (2014) in which he plays an older married man coming to terms with his secret homosexuality.
Another inspirational film for me was Dead Poets Society (1989), as I always wanted to be a maverick motivational teacher, much as my own inspired English teacher was when I was 13 – he’d sit on the desk and read to us Kafka, Tom Sharpe and Shakespeare rather than setting us essays. In the film Williams, plays Keating the English teacher, who challenges the pupils to see the world in different ways, standing on their desks, ripping pages from books that deadened poetry, encouraging them to carpe diem, “seize the day” and call him “O Captain! My Captain!” in reference to Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem about the death of Abraham Lincoln.
“It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer,
his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.”
Waiting for Godot
Williams appeared with his friend Steve Martin in a much acclaimed limited-run production in 1988 of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. A review said that “As the earthbound Estragon, Robin Williams is the same Robin Williams we have come to know and love for his manic intelligence, comic body language and perfect sense of timing. In this part, he is in bad need of a shave. Between convulsions, he gives unmistakable signs of a soul in puzzled torment.”
The play is about two down-in-the-dumps men waiting for someone, possibly God (though denied by Beckett), to show up. Being unable to think of a good reason to leave, it becomes an eternal and continually disappointed wait. Williams’ real life “puzzled torment” and wait is over and he has decided to leave us. A brave choice – a phrase that some people will not be comfortable with, but one that echoes my own experience, though I’m glad I survived now.
Williams began his stand-up comedy career in the mid to late 1970s, around the same time as his first film role in 1977 and appearance as Mork in Happy Days (1978) which led to the spin-off series, Mork and Mindy, which was hugely ad-libbed.
In the Happy Days Season 5 episode, “My Favorite Orkan”, Williams, as Mork, tries to kidnap Richie and take him back to his planet but is foiled by the Fonz. Originally a dream sequence, it was so popular that it was edited so as to be real and allow for the character of Mork to have wiped their memories and reappear in Mork and Mindy as an exiled alien from the planet Ork where humour is banned. Oh Shazbot! Mork showed up again in a retrospective episode of Happy Days, “Mork Returns”.
In 2004, he was voted 13th on Comedy Central‘s list of the “100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time”. It was his improvisation that got him the role of Mork, standing on his head at the audition. Ad-libbing often led to film and television scripts adapting to him, rather than him sticking to the lines. Much of his role as the genie in the animated film Aladdin (1992) was improvised.
In 2009 Robin Williams conducted a delayed 26-city US comedy tour called “Weapons of Self-Destruction“, aimed at George Bush, rather than himself. He was hospitalised that year for heart surgery after announcing the tour in 2008. In 2010 he performed the show in Canterbury, New Zealand, and donated all the proceeds to the Red Cross and post-earthquake rebuilding projects.
I’ve often heard the phrase “the funny man of comedy” used of Williams, but aren’t all comedians meant to be funny? To me it means someone who can laugh at situations rather than make jokes by taking someone down. The irony is of course that the funny man who appeared in Happy Days was an unhappy man.
Just because someone can make us laugh, does not mean that they can make themselves happy. The daily battle with the black dog of depression and for Robin, at least, the associated ‘demons’ of drug and drink addiction, lifts momentarily in the manic moments of humour and comedy, but returns like a fog blanket blocking out the sun. Judgements of his addictions are insensitive, for those who’ve experienced depression, know full well that it can lead to other behaviours in order to survive or end the feelings of depression. Concert pianist James Rhodes called depression a “cloak of lead, a toxic second skin“:
“Depression is like being forced to wear a cloak made of lead. You don’t get to choose when to put it on and take it off. It is a second skin which gradually seeps into your own, real skin and poisons it until you are a walking, toxic, corrosive bundle of infectious awfulness. The thought of suicide is the only real respite and the only chink of light at the end of the tunnel.”
Robin Williams was funny, depression is not, though he laughed at his own “demons”, drink and drug addictions, which had returned to afflict him in the last few months. But that doesn’t give us the right to laugh at his life, troubles or choices.
I’ve done stand-up comedy and did a whole set on my own suicide attempt, it was dark and dead pan. Someone even thought I’d made it all up and commended my ‘acting’. In fact, it was the truth, often stranger than fiction, and my own surviving suicide and finally wanting to be alive again that enabled me to laugh at death and make fun of myself. That is not for others to do though. Doubly insensitive and offensive is the joke on Twitter I’ve seen about it now being an ideal time for Kellie Maloney (the transitioning Frank Maloney) to audition for Mrs Doubtfire 2, now that Robin is dead.
Others have taken to the web to say that they have no sympathy for those who take their own life, or suffer from alcohol and drugs addictions. The Guardian has had to moderate and delete about 10% of the comments on the report of his death. I’ve read of people on Facebook calling it “the pussy way out”. So wrong. Suicide is often a decision to end not only self-torment but to end being a burden to others. It can take courage and bravery to attempt it, it is not a coward’s way out as Fox News‘ breaking news editor and anchor Shepard Smith called it, it is the last straw for someone who is tired of fighting for survival every day. I’m not encouraging suicide, but I am saying stop judging it and view the person who has gone as now at peace.
“How can someone so well-off, well-known and successful have depression?”. This was said of Stephen Fry, but is doing the rounds about Robin too. Fry references an article by Alastair Campbell in which “he suggested changing the word ‘depression’ to ‘cancer’ or ‘diabetes’ in order to reveal how, in its own way, sick a question, it is. Ill-natured, ill-informed, ill-willed or just plain ill”. Fry writes about feeling sad, lonely, depressed, suicidal and the rights to seemingly illogically having those feelings.
“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.” – Stephen Fry
Even when surrounded by loved ones, depression is a lonely disease, but having a partner or friend around has saved me from acting on suicidal feelings more than once in the past. It was when all alone, in the darkest hours of the night that I attempted it more seriously.
“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone” – Robin Williams
Very often there are no answers or solutions, and there should certainly be no judgements for what is in cause or effect a chemical imbalance in the brain. I’ve suffered from depression for over a decade and for the last 2 years been under investigation for a variant of bipolar or cyclothymia, Mood Affective Disorder. Fry has cyclothymia and whilst Williams never regarded himself as fully diagnosed, many clinicians think he had depression and Bipolar Affective Disorder.
Whilst the label may help with gaining the right support and treatment, it is irrelevant to how we treat people with the symptoms of the varieties of depression and addiction. We have not lived their life, seen inside their mind, and therefore do not know the balance of accountability for their own actions and suffering under the weight of seemingly intransigent conditions that afflict people indiscriminately and unfairly.
Depression disables, debilitates, and is often met with misunderstanding that you can do something about it by pulling yourself together, getting out more, getting up or some such chivvying coaching. Similarly, with suicide, the offers to “talk to me” before you try it next time, or of it being a “selfish way out” that hurts others, are ignorant, even if often well meant, thoughts. Suicides can be planned or spontaneous, cries for help or calls for the help and feeling a burden on others to end, persistent or momentary feelings of the need for it all to stop, the feeling of powerlessness or the only way to take control.
Dean Burnett in the Guardian called it a “staggering ignorance of mental health problems” to refer to suicide as a selfish act. Suicide and depression are not selfish. Williams had access to the best help around, but he was the “clown that could not be fixed“, as Simon Jenkins writes:
“There was no help that Williams and others like him could not and did not receive. It failed. All illness is a great leveller, but none levels like mental illness. It remains the poor relation of medicine. Research is paltry. Therapies are halfhearted. Drugs are primitive.”
One-in-four of us will get a depression related illness. Yet it receives a small percentage of even 1/40th of the medical research and treatment budget.
Devastating news about @robinwilliams — knew him a little and liked him a whole lot more. A brain wired like no other and so so kind.
Robin Williams’ favourite children’s book was CS Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe which he would read out loud to his kids. Famous for his funny voices, when reading it to his daughter, named after Princess Zelda from The Legend of Zelda computer game series, she said “Don’t do any voices. Just read it as yourself.” One of the hardest things in life is to be yourself.
His third wife and now widow, Susan Schneider, said:
“I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken.”
Fellow actor and comedian Steve Martin, tweeted that he “could not be more stunned by the loss of Robin Williams, mensch, great talent, acting partner, genuine soul.” ‘Mensch’, whilst simply meaning “human being” is a Yiddish idiom for a genuinely good person, a real “stand-up guy”.
Barack Obama, in offering condolences, referred to Williams as “one of a kind”:
“Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between. But he was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien – but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most – from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets. The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin’s family, his friends, and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams.”
Tributes will continue to flood in from fans, friends and fellow entertainers, Sarah Silverman described him as “pure love” and Stephen Fry sad he was “so so kind”.
At one point over half the trending tags on Twitter were Robin Williams related including #RobinWilliamsWillLiveOnForever.
George Takei said “May the heavens be brightened with your singular glow” and several have commented on Twitter saying that now he can make God laugh. Friends have expressed sadness, referenced mental illness and one wrote “I can’t believe Mindy is Morkless”, an apt end for how it all began back in 1978.
Gifted, manic, funny, sad, tormented, lost to us, but now at peace. RIP
[This article is an expansion of one first published here]