The Anatomy of Melancholy, Ovalhouse

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Anyone remember that Russell Howard skit about everything the Daily Mail has reported as increasing your chances of getting cancer? It lands a fairly easy punch, reeling off the ridiculous and frequently contradictory list of factors that have been warned against in the paper over the years. You’re more likely to get cancer if you’re a man, if you’re a woman, if you don’t eat a certain food, if you do eat a certain food – you get the picture. Unexpectedly, it was this video that I found myself thinking of while watching Stan’s Cafe’s The Anatomy of Melancholy.

The book of the same name by Richard Burton on which the show is based is essentially a litany along the same lines as that issued by the Daily Mail, multiplied a few times over. First published in 1621, this 1,424-page tome attempted to comprehensively outline understandings of melancholy and its causes, symptoms and cures at the time. The problem, of course, is that not everyone agrees. One philosopher or scientist recommends one course of action, while another flatly contradicts this. We are recommended exercise, but not too much exercise; study might be a cure, unless our melancholy is born of “overmuch study”.

From this description alone, it hardly sounds like a text that is begging for a stage adaptation. It’s interesting to discover, therefore, that this production is the result of a challenge by a fellow theatremaker to stage a text that would be considered by many as unstageable. And, though The Anatomy of Melancholy is an undeniably unwieldy text, the premise is promising. Both the marketing material and the initial set-up suggest that Stan’s Cafe will be engaging not so much with an adaptation itself but, far more interestingly, with the whole idea of adaptation. How does one even begin to stage a book this long and intricate? How can it possibly be faithful to the sheer volume of information in the original? What does it even mean to be faithful when transforming a work for the stage?

This, however, turns out to be a red herring. There are certainly gestures towards a meta-theatrical framing; the four performers, who don’t seem to have fully agreed on how they are going about the staging, hold scripts in hand, occasionally debating over digressions and scribbling out lines. There is also something intriguing about the decision to distribute Burton’s reflections between more than one performer and emphatically employ the collective pronoun “we”, suggesting the internal discord that is perhaps the source of Burton’s own melancholy. But this device never goes anywhere, taunting us with the unfulfilled promise of flipping the whole piece on its head.

Instead, what we get is a fairly straightforward walk-through of Burton’s text, progressing from causes to symptoms to cures, with particular examples, such as love, highlighted along the way. The whole thing is littered with paper, from the seemingly never-ending flipcharts that line the back of the stage – amusingly recalling both the school and the conference presentation – to the many quotations that are displayed to the audience. This crowded, untidy knowledge is mirrored in Harry Trow’s set, which is, like the studies of most academics I know, a book-filled portrait of ordered chaos. It’s a fitting representation of the mind itself, and Burton’s mind in particular: messy, cluttered, jammed full with competing ideas.

In the process of sorting its way through this jumble of information, the central problem of Stan’s Cafe’s adaptation is that it cleaves too closely to the content of Burton’s book rather than to its spirit. There are plenty of oddities among Burton’s outdated theories, some of which are treated with a light touch of silliness, but it strikes me that there is far more interest to be found in the figure of Burton himself, his compulsion to write of melancholy to escape the melancholy that he himself felt, and the challenges inherent in bringing this work to the stage. By largely ignoring all of this and faithfully conveying Burton’s arguments, Stan’s Cafe assault the audience with a deadening barrage of information, delivered with little variation in pace or tone. The programme warns us that it is natural to drift off, but the show offers little to wake us up again.

The one angle that Stan’s Cafe do seem to take on this material is an attempt to draw attention to certain contemporary resonances. While we can laugh at Burton’s description of the humours, his observations about the prevalence of melancholy and the desperate human desire for a quick fix are equally relevant to us today. In a society where rates of depression are rising and the government is obsessed with “happiness indexes”, there is certainly a case for the prescience of Burton’s text. Money, food and thwarted love are all causes of distress that have persisted down the centuries, while Burton’s description of life as a prison could have been plucked right out of Discipline and Punish.

Rather than shedding any significant light on our present day maladies of the mind, however, The Anatomy of Melancholy seems to shrug its shoulders with an attitude of “twas ever thus”. What we leave with is the same knowledge that we brought in, that unhappiness is an unfortunate but unavoidable fact of human existence. I did find myself contemplating, as I shifted restlessly in my seat, whether it might all be an ironic demonstration of its subject, inducing in its audience the same melancholy that it monotonously dissects. If so, then it unquestionably succeeds.

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