An Anatomy of Melancholy – Pit Theatre, Barbican Centre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Creator and Director: Netia Jones

“Melancholia” is a term that’s gone out of favour in modern parlance. Freudian psychoanalyst Darian Leader, in his book The New Black, suggests that this particular aspect of depression, one triggered by immense loss and the resulting grief, has qualities that merely treating as a pharmaceutical disorder – a lack of serotonin, to be treated by medical intervention alone – ignores.

Excerpts from Leader’s work, read by the author, infuse the soundtrack of this performance piece that revolves around countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Thomas Dunford. Starting with John Dowland’s 17th century In Darkness Let Me Dwell, the performance starts in near darkness, Davies lying on the ground as he sings.

As light slowly returns, we see a staging of modern office furniture, bedecked in greenery and test tubes full of some aquamarine substance. Together with four video walls, creator Netia Jones’s design provides an effective flash of modernism against the much older musical style of lute and countertenor solo.

Leader’s voice is joined by further recorded extracts from seminal texts on melancholia, with Kobna Holdbrook-Smith reading from Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ and Naeem Hyatt from Robert Burton’s 1621 work, The Anatomy of Melancholy, which lends this performance piece its name. It is unfortunate that all three speakers have such similar timbres, allowing the different authors’ works to merge together without much distinction. This is compounded by all three texts taking such similar viewpoints that their origins from three works over four centuries becomes more muddled than it could be.

One of the points the voiceover work does make clear, though, is that originally melancholia, the state triggered by extreme grief, was less synonymous with what we would now call deep depression. It would be just as likely to manifest in manic states and monomania. On stage, this is met with Davies, who has otherwise moved slowly and deliberately around the space, to crawl under a desk and reorder piles of books. Which he does slowly and deliberately, avoiding the mania of which we have just heard.

At one point as Dunford takes on a solo piece, Davies sits on his cluttered desk, head bowed onto clasped hands. Whether he’s praying or sitting in silent anguish is unclear – maybe both, maybe neither. It’s another sign of the slow, deliberate ambiguity with which Jones infuses the performance.

That deliberateness is also marked by a consistency of tempo in the song choices. Both Dunford and Davies perform with precision and razor sharp clarity, but by the end of the hour their performance risks becoming background music to one’s own thoughts. That may be intentional – what use is a performative meditation on grief, loss, melancholy and depression if it cannot inspire thoughts and consideration of the same – but it risks the piece sliding from inspirational work down into a piece that’s more just eccentrically curious.

As In Darkness Let Me Dwell returns for a reprise and the lights slowly fade once more, what An Anatomy of Melancholy does impress upon us is that engaging with one’s own melancholy, to accept that grief can have a profound healing effect upon us that medical treatment alone risks ignoring, is an essential part of dealing with the checkerboard of life. 

It’s that thought that stops such a meditative piece about depression from itself being a depressing work.

Continues until 30 October 2022

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