The day I saw Robin Williams in his element

Francis Moriarty recalls an early live performance by the comic genius

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 August, 2014, 3:22pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 August, 2014, 3:23am

There are times when talents gather in a certain place, drawn as filings to a magnet. That's how it was in the San Francisco Bay Area of four decades ago, a time of circus clowns and cyclotrons, activists and accelerators, particles and poets. I write of this now because someone very special, even by the standards of that era, has just died.

The first time I saw Robin Williams was in one of the comedy clubs that were proliferating in vacated corner stores and the back rooms of old spaghetti houses. On the day in question, I was going though hard times and needed some comic relief with my coffee.

The first act was a guitar-wielding comic whose childhood was so deeply scarred by The Wizard of Oz that he devoted himself to mimicking the voice of every character.

The next performer was a man who'd been subjected to education at the hands of Catholic nuns, a rich vein of material in better hands than his. Then came a fellow who relied on profanity to generate embarrassed laughter.

Now, in the world of improvisational humour there are stock situations. One involves asking audience members to call out a location, a topic and a playwright. The chance of hearing "Shakespeare!" approaches certainty. What follows is a comedic effort sprinkled with "thee" and "thou", and verbs ending in "-est" or "-eth". Actual knowledge of Shakespeare is not required.

So, no one could have dreamed what was about to happen.

Just as the foul-mouthed comic was being led away, a young man came screaming through the front door, leapt onto the stage without introduction and - wielding an imaginary sword - launched into a manic, campy, machine-gun assault on the world of Shakespeare, a rapid-fire non-stop soliloquy that had the audience screaming with laughter. For more than half an hour he pranced, danced, jumped, minced, fought, cried, held arguments and dialogues with himself and dozens of characters, switching back and forth at nanosecond speeds, romping and sweating through witches, ghosts, kings, princes, good and bad daughters, emperors and assassins - as we sat aghast.

It was soon obvious to me that this was not set-piece stuff, nor was it playing with stereotypes; as he was putting hands on hips and lisping a campy Hamlet, I realised that none of this was mimicry; this man, whoever he was, really knew Shakespeare.

Suddenly, he gave a hysterical farewell oration to an audience nearly beside itself with laughter and drenched in awe. Every person understood that this was sheer genius, the real deal. As the performer raised his arms in farewell, the emcee said, "Ladies and gentleman, remember the name - Robin Williams - you're going to hear of him again."

Williams, it seems, had just blown in like a tornado after participating at an event where all of Shakespeare's plays were performed within 24 hours.

This happened in a time when many stars were rising and almost anyone could feel part of the ascent. And everyone understood that genius has demons for siblings, and that Robin Williams had his.

So when I learned of Robin's death, apparently at his own hands, I recalled that afternoon long ago. And I felt, having experienced his brilliance at no more than a few feet away, that when he chose to exit from his darkness into the light, he would take something of Shakespeare with him. What more appropriate, perhaps, than the final lines of The Tempest, the last play that Shakespeare wrote:

But release me from my bands / With the help of your good hands: / Gentle breath of yours my sails / Must fill, or else my project fails, / Which was to please. Now I want / Spirits to enforce, art to enchant, / And my ending is despair, / Unless I be relieved by prayer, / Which pierces so that it assaults / Mercy itself and frees all faults. / As you from crimes would pardon'd be, / Let your indulgence set me free.

Francis Moriarty is a former senior political reporter at RTHK and a correspondent governor at the Foreign Correspondents' Club