Home / Spoken Word / The Anatomy of Melancholy – The STUDIO, Birmingham REP

The Anatomy of Melancholy – The STUDIO, Birmingham REP

Writer: Robert Burton, adapted by Stan’s Cafe

Directors: James Yarker, Gerard Bell, Rochi Rampal, Graeme Rose, Craig Stephens

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight


The Anatomy of Melancholy Birmingham Rep Graeme BraidwoodThe REP’s Bedlam festival, The Festival of Mad Ideas continues with local performance group, Stan’s Café, a group of artists from a number of disciplines working under the direction of James Yarker, with their adaptation of The Anatomy of Melancholy. The Anatomy of Melancholy is a book written and researched by Robert Burton, a 17th century parish priest. He revised it regularly and the final version, published after his death, weighs in at 353,369 words. Although not trained in medicine himself, Burton shows a keen interest in matters anatomic and, of course, the classification and treatment of melancholy. The genesis of this production was an implicit challenge to Stan’s Café when they were given a copy of the book and advised that it couldn’t be performed. Over ten years passed until, as James Yarker says, ‘… with more and more friends prescribed anti-depressants and politicians starting to speak of a “happiness” agenda, it seems time to … knuckle down to the challenge’. That resulted in this production, devised and co-directed by the cast of four.

While many of Burton’s ideas – the concept of the four humours, allied to the four elements and the need for balance between them; the influence over human affairs and emotions of the stars; the efficacy of blood-letting, for example – are ludicrous today, many still resonate. Other parts are weirdly prescient, leading one to wonder if the cast have slipped in some more modern ideas alongside Burton’s text, for example the impact of the seasons (autumn is described as being worst for melancholy) echoes Seasonal Affective Disorder, and the need for a good diet, exercise and the management of stress are all familiar to today’s ears. The impact of what Burton describes as the greed of universities also rings a modern bell. But this is essentially a dry textbook, written over four hundred years ago – how to present that on stage?

Stan’s Café have taken Burton’s text and condensed it. While Gerard Bell plays the ageing Burton in his alter ego as Democritus Junior, he is supported by the rest of the cast – Rochi Rampal, Graeme Rose and Craig Stephens who seem to take on aspects of Burton as they declaim his ideas. There is much humour to be had, for example, when Burton describes the positive effects of ‘good air’, and singles out Sutton Coldfield as one place that is blessed with it. There is also much play to be had with some of his dated ideas, although the cast generally treat these with respect. The phrasing sounds rather quaint to modern ears, but the cast bring out its innate rhythms and musicality well. They stick closely to the structure of the book, using flip charts to present the ‘Partition’, ‘Section’,‘Member’ and ‘Subsection’ headings. Before the interval, Burton discusses the causes of melancholy in Partition I. Afterwards, we hear his views on treatment in Partition II, and, more specifically, on the effects of love in Partition III.

This is a large text – indeed, the programme warns us that this is as far from a conventional play lacking plot and characters, and that the audience might find itself drifting off because of the length and content – and therein (as one subtitle tells us) lies the rub. The show is just too full of content. The characters interact well and provide variations of pace and tone but overall it lacks enough light and shade. It runs, with an interval, for almost three hours and sometimes seems repetitious – for example, in Partition I we are told that causes of melancholy include poor diet (including a long list of foods thought by various philosophers to cause melancholy); in Partition II we are told that a treatment for melancholy would be good diet (and to try everything possible before visiting a doctor and using medicines). There are some hints of self-indulgence by the cast as adapters. Some audience members found the struggle an unequal one and dozed at some points. And as one audience member said, “it’s funny but in an instantly forgettable way”. There were also some technical issues during Partition I when muffled tannoy announcements could be heard impinging on the studio.

Overall, though, an entertaining evening from a very talented group of performers, but one which might be improved further by some judicious tightening of the script.

Runs until 9 November

Picture: Graeme Braidwood


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