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.

Collaboration in kind: arts and business partnerships beyond the cheque

Originally written for The Guardian Culture Professionals Network.

In the post-cuts cultural landscape, collaboration has become the new touchstone. Working together is widely regarded as the way for arts organisations to survive in this environment, but what if that involves looking beyond the creative industries? As the ground beneath us shifts, a surprising word is creeping into the vocabulary of emerging artists: entrepreneurial.

This terminology is particularly associated with the work of Theatre Delicatessen, that over the last four years has established a system of what it calls “transactions” – in-kind exchanges of space, resources and services that have allowed them to put on their work and have this year secured them a residency in the old BBC offices in Marylebone. One step removed from traditional philanthropy, this creative thinking is about the engineering of mutually beneficial partnerships, and it’s an approach that is beginning to be more widely adopted.

“It’s not just about writing a cheque,” stresses James Yarker, artistic director of Birmingham-based theatre company Stan’s Cafe, which has a reduced rent agreement on their current space in an unoccupied portion of the AE Harris metal works factory in the city’s jewellery quarter. What the theatre company offers the manufacturer in return is sponsorship, access to their work and a renewed place within the community, not to mention a mutual network of support. As Yarker puts it, the artists are now “part of the company’s life”.

For those proponents of this model, their enthusiasm verges on the evangelical. “It’s absolutely written into our DNA that it has to work both ways,” says Ali Robertson, director of the Tobacco Factory Theatre in Bristol. The theatre, which has been housed in this factory since 1998, secured a 25-year rent-free lease on part of its space in 2009, cementing a long-running relationship with the building and its landlord (and saviour from demolition) George Ferguson.

Despite the financial element to transactions such as these, the real strength of this approach lies in exchanges that are not based purely on money. While Robertson admits that straightforward philanthropy plays a sizable part in the funding of most arts organisations, including his own, he firmly believes that “the healthiest relationships are often based on something a bit deeper than that”.

The foundations of these relationships can be hard to pin down. Artists often benefit landlords through reducing their business rates by occupying empty space, but exchanges can be based on anything from reviving a local area and bringing in footfall, to running workshops for aspiring thespians in the workforce.

At the centre of these collaborations there is typically a sense of community and a simple but unquantifiable commitment to helping one another out on a day-to-day basis. “If you’re writing a cheque for someone, the transaction is quite cold,” observes Yarker. “Relationships and collaborations are much softer and much easier in many ways.”

Steven Atkinson, artistic director of High Tide, agrees. Before the theatre company found their current home in the offices of Lansons Communications in Clerkenwell, they spent a year rent-free in another office building, but the arrangement was not sustainable in the long term because they had nothing to offer in return. Now they have a collaborative agreement whereby they are offered space and infrastructure in exchange for the training and entertainment they provide for the Lansons staff. It’s a system that Atkinson says “always ticks all of the necessary boxes” for both parties.

With the recession leaving acres of empty office space in its wake, Atkinson believes there is the opportunity for more such partnerships. “A lot of companies could offer desk space to not-for-profit organisations and not really feel any drop in their own capacity,” he claims, urging artists to explore these possibilities.

In this spirit, theatre company tangled feet has taken over a floor of office space in central London through a deal brokered by the charity Healthy Planet, opening an arts co-operative along similar lines to the one now operating in Theatre Delicatessen’s Marylebone home. In the retail sector, meanwhile, the Empty Shops Network helps artists to temporarily take over deserted high street units to stage performances, installations and community projects.

What these examples rely on, however, is the negotiating skill of third party organisations – help which many artists are not aware of or lack access to. Atkinson speculates whether a government agency might plug the gap, bringing about more relationships with the business sector in response to the dearth of public funding. But for now at least the onus lies with the arts. So how can artists start up these conversations with potential collaborators?

“It’s about having a non-scary front,” laughs Atkinson, though the point he makes is a serious one. One point of agreement between those who have succeeded in this entrepreneurial vein is that it is vital to be flexible and to present a friendly face to those who might be in a position to help but who might also be intimidated by the arts.

Yarker, meanwhile, simply advises artists to do what they do best. “If artists are talking about their work, they’re naturally enthusiastic and inspiring,” he says. “That’s very seductive.”

Of course, beneficial as these partnerships may be, they are not the answer to all of the challenges currently faced by artists. “It works to a point,” warns Jessica Brewster, co-artistic director of Theatre Delicatessen. Collaborative agreements with businesses can provide space, resources and a safety net of support, but they do not ultimately pay artists’ wages. “You have to be aware that it’s a model that only works so far,” says Brewster. “It’s not a model that will necessarily give you a living.”

And what about the possible ethical implications? There is crossover here with the concerns frequently raised about corporate sponsorship of the arts and how this might compromise the art being made. The artists I speak to, however, are adamant that these relationships – if made with companies sympathetic to the work – needn’t interfere with artistic intentions.

“If you can do it without compromising the art that you’re trying to make, who wouldn’t want to save money in order to spend that money on the art?” says Atkinson, and he has a point. Although they might not be a substitute for funding, approached with the right attitude these in-kind “transactions” can go a long way towards making up the shortfall, as well as developing entire communities as a valuable side-effect. In Atkinson’s words, “it’s something of a no-brainer”.

Photo: Tobacco Factory