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The Anatomy of Melancholy, Ovalhouse – Review

Stan’s Cafe

Pros: It was interesting to hear of the views of Burton on cures for and causes of melancholy – some of which were surprisingly modern.
Cons: A long performance with not enough to sustain interest and fully engage the audience.
Our Verdict: A difficult performance that still feels like a work in progress. At 2hours 40 minutes it could be significantly shorter while retaining the overall content.
Credit: Graeme Braidwood
I do not usually research a production’s background before I go to the theatre but in this instance I wish I had. The Anatomy of Melancholy is a book first published in 1621 and said to be a favourite of Keats and Samuel Johnson. It was prized in its day; outlining causes, symptoms and cures for melancholy. Some of its points are obviously dated. However some of the ideas raised are alarmingly modern and are still being researched to this day including the relationship between physical and mental health.
At almost 1,500 pages any attempt to bring this to the stage would be daunting and Stan’s Cafe approach this task bravely. However for me the book didn’t translate itself naturally into theatre, and at nearly three hours long it lacks focus. The programme even states that “The show is long and full of content. Don’t worry if you find yourself drifting off … This is natural”. Putting such a statement in the programme made me doubt the company’s confidence in the shows ability to engage with this text. I felt as though I was at an academic lecture rather than at a theatre performance.
It is an academic text, yet I think that in bringing it to the theatre more action and variety was required. I also felt at times it was quite repetitive, and towards the end I noticed the audience became restless. To break up the monotony, occasional musical interludes were a welcome feature, consisting of a lute and vocals to further illustrate Burton’s research.
The cast is made up of four actors from the company, Rochi Rampal, Gerard Bell, Craig Stephens and Graeme Rose. They present this production as though the book itself were a work in progress, tearing out pages and scribbling on scripts as discussions take place. I wasn’t keen on the use of the scripts. Although the actors obviously knew their lines off by heart the scripts gave the impression that the production itself was a work in progress. It also gave the audience visual indicators of the plays progression, not ideal in a production of this length when one finds oneself wondering how much is left.
The set is created to resemble Burton’s office, and is scattered with flip charts of various sizes. These flip charts are used to introduce the different sections of the play (or lecture as I came to accept it as). The set is quite messy and this only increases as the show goes on, perhaps to suggest the writing process of The Anatomy of Melancholy. In addition to these features the set was a mix of contemporary objects and those that would be at home in Burton’s 15th century office. This mixture extended to the costumes; initially appearing to be from Burton’s era but on further inspection made of modern material such as denim and plimsolls. I was slightly confused by this decision, and felt that perhaps further direct contemporary references in the script itself would have fused the original and contemporary musings on melancholy together better.
I feel that had I known more about the book and its prestigious reputation prior to this performance I would have felt more engaged with the subject matter. However I must admit that my mind wandered frequently and I found it at times incredibly difficult to follow (although Stan’s Cafe do suggest that this will happen in advance). Overall this production is too long with not enough variety of presentation to really capture an audience. With some editing of the script and more action I think that The Anatomy of Melancholy has the potential to be an entertaining and intriguing production, unfortunately it is not quite there yet.
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!
The Anatomy of Melancholy runs at Ovalhouse until Saturday 30th November.

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