Writer: Robert Burton
Director: James Yarker
Reviewer: Jon Wainwright
As adaptations go, this is ambitious in at least two ways: to bring in nearly 1,500 pages of a Renaissance self-help manual at a shade under three hours, and to bring to life material that is both undramatic and, even on a charitable interpretation, largely cobblers. The evening is divided not into acts and scenes but “partitions” and “sections” and the presence of ten flipcharts (each with many charts to flip) is ominously didactic: the theatre seems more like a schoolroom, and the audience there to receive instruction. Weirdly, the result is strangely wonderful, thanks mainly to the versatility and expressiveness of the four actors (who are also all credited as devisers along with the director, James Yarker).
It’s 1638, and in his study a vicar (Robert Burton played by Gerard Bell) is rehearsing a stage adaptation of his best-selling book anatomizing melancholy. He confesses himself a thief, having acquired his smattering of knowledge from many writers and from many ages. Just how fragmented and how divers becomes apparent as the performance progresses. He is joined by three unnamed characters (played by Rochi Rampal, Graeme Rose and Craig Stephens) who help illustrate the book’s wisdom (such as it is) by acting out, for example, the “vegetal”, “animal” and “rational” parts of the soul. They also hold up cards containing translations of Latin quotes and citations of the authors responsible (just in case we need them). We might guess that “inepti” are “fools” but few will recognize Brassavola as the authority who recommended senna as “a wonderful herb against melancholy”.
Helpfully, Gerard has already “explained” that melancholy (“melan” plus “choler”) is “black and sour, begotten of the more feculent part of nourishment, and purged from the spleen”. This doesn’t sound too pleasant, and so we go along with the idea that melancholy is a disease, in need of treatment. The 21st-century tendency of big pharma to medicalize conditions such as shyness and grief to sell more drugs, it seems, is nothing new. And, naturally, the profession is careful to protect its interests. More than once the audience is warned off concocting remedies at home without the aid of a doctor (i.e. quack). To be fair to Burton, he does later quote Seneca, who opined that it is sometimes good to be miserable.
Despite the almaniacal and scattergun approach to knowledge, there are plenty of acute observations of human nature that still resonate today. Our “love of gaming” may now be exploited by fixed-odds betting machines but the underlying psychology remains largely unchanged. Bell suggests that reason and appetite jar, and that reason is “overbourn by passion” (Stephens eats an apple). David Hume would agree, and so would psychologists like Daniel Kahneman, although neither would look to Genesis for explanation. Indeed, the vicar describes curiosity as like reaching for “forbidden fruit” and so consigns his project to one of list making rather than explanation. Still, it’s not often that the phrase “et cetera” — rounding off another seemingly interminable and yet comprehensive list – will get a laugh in the theatre.
This drama’s unusual intellectual content might be considered an antidote to the plague of pantos currently infesting the schedules, but it’s also an encouragement to indulge in such entertainment. As Robert Burton himself said, “I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy.” This kind of play won’t be to everyone’s taste, and in the hands of less accomplished performers it’s also the kind of text that could have audience members volunteering for a bout of bloodletting. Fortunately, we’re neither in church nor the psychoanalyst’s lounge but in the much more amenable world of Stan’s Cafe, the theatrical company responsible.