The Public Reviews Score
Writer: Robert Burton
Adaptor: Stan’s Café
Director: James Yarker and the cast
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
“The show is long and full of content” advises the programme for The Anatomy of Melancholy, “Don’t worry if you find yourself drifting off and thinking of something else. This is natural – just enjoy those thoughts and when they end come back to the show for more”. They’re right about the content – and they’re not kidding about it being long, but as for drifting off, there’s not much chance of it. Stan’s Café bring a whole new approach to a 400 year old text that in it’s original form is hardly a page turner, and turn it into two and a half hours of crackling wit, wise advice and glorious storytelling.
Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621, tapped into the concerns of its times, a period of religious debate and radical politics. As the pace of change continued to quicken, the mental wellbeing of the population was of concern from everyone from the clerics to the physicians, and Burton’s book sought to be the ultimate textbook, providing an in depth explanation of the causes of melancholia, and suggesting a whole host of remedies. Of course, much of it is pure quackery, but what you can’t fail to spot is how little really changes in the human condition. The moping teenager, lovesick or bored of study, is as much a 17th century phenomenon as a twenty-first century one, and it’s still a good idea to eat your vegetables, exercise a bit (but not too much) and make sure you get a good nights sleep (Burton’s suggestions to ensure this include everything from fresh sheets to a strong drink before bed). All the ideas in the book are not exactly Burton’s. His thesis is concocted by bringing together the various arguments circulating at the time, from Roman philosophy to Latin poetry.
Stan’s Café reflect the contemporary flashes in the text with a set (Harry Trow) and costumes (Kay Wilton) that brilliantly combine the Jacobean with the contemporary. A doublet and hose crafted out of Levi denim, a cleric’s gown and trainers, a desk incongruously piled with leather bound books, tincture bottles, post-its and beer cans. The room becomes a lecture theatre, the stage crammed with flip charts, guiding us through each partition, chapter and heading. The constant flipping of pages is beautifully choreographed, ritualistic and adds a papery chorus to the text.
And the text…this is really what it’s all about. Ripping it boldly, yet with respect, from the page gives what could so easily seem dry and irrelevant a sparkling energy – from the profane to the scatological, the narrative barrels along in the mouths of four fine actors, all putting in sharp, compelling performances. Gerard Bell provides the voice of Burton with a stately gravitas, fixing the audience with his intense gaze and wonderfully measured delivery, and Graeme Rose brings much of the humour with his delightfully dry nonchalance and easy charm. He’s also responsible for some lovely musical interludes.
Birmingham based Stan’s Café have never been a company to shy away from the important, difficult things in life and The Anatomy of Melancholia sure is difficult. There’s way too much stuff here, even for a two and a half hour show. It’s about misery and suffering, it raises issues of mental health and psychology, it questions religion and philosophy, it bores deep to the very heart of the human condition. And with all that in the mix, it works a treat.
Reviewed on 24 April 2014