A 500,000 word text on the nature of melancholy, first published in 1621: Stan's Cafe have made Robert Burton's archaic text into a stage play. Quirky and illuminating, or insane and heavy-going? And what does it all tell us about what we would call 'depression?' Nicole Fordham Hodges went to the Ovalhouse Theatre to find out.
Two messy student desks: diet coke, screwed up paper, a skull, half-drunk Carlesberg, unopened herbal tea, tincture. Between them stand a series of flipcharts. In comes Richard Burton (Gerard Bell). Burton himself is prone to melancholy, and 'speaks of melancholy in order to be free of it.' He is adapting his lifetime's work into a stageplay with the help of three unnamed characters (Rochi Rampal, Craig Stephens, Graeme Rose).
Bell's worn, twinkling, human presence is the quietness at the centre of this wordy play. He balances between wisdom and bewilderment as he lays his work before us. But take a breath. For there follows a kind of extended – very extended - lecture: a frenzy of quotations and subdivisions exploring in great detail all things medical and philosophical. Much chart flipping. And all in the Shakespeare-like language of the time. Sound hard work? As the programme itself admits:
'The show is long and full of content. Don't worry if you find yourself drifting off and thinking of something else.'
This play is dense with wonderful erudite quotations, flicked before us on flash cards almost too fast to read, let alone for a reviewer to write down. In the end I gave up. This play doesnt take itself too seriously: neither should I. The characters themselves screw up chunks of their scripts and chuck them on the stage.
So: what might cause melancholy? We are treated to a surreal list of ideas which include: eating eels near the solstice, windy places, eating peas, of course dissapointment in love. Oh, and the Romney Marshes. As for cures, try bloodletting, removing your own wind with bellows, eating lettuce. Obviously laughable. Yet I couldn't help but be reminded of the years I spent seeking a remedy for my own condition. Might some of the medical theories and advice offered to us today seem in the future equally wide of the mark?
Melancholy seems to have been a much broader concept than the imbalance we might label 'clinical depression'. Perhaps for this reason, The Anatomy of Melancholy seems to be more about the human condition than about a specific illness.
Between periods of archaic oddity, we wander into philosophy.
'We are all slaves and prisoners,' says Burton ' Tis no disparagment to be a stranger. The rain is stranger to the earth… Our whole life is an Irish Sea... full of troublesome waves.'
The links between body and mind, between our 'discontents' and how they affect our health, are anatomised in a way which sounds so modern and enlightened. We are advised to 'seek that which may be found.' It seems modern-day 'self-help' is underpinned by the wisdom of the ages.
Oh, this is a wordy text, and yes I did drift off. The cast work hard to make it accessible, breaking into music sometimes to give our worn minds a rest. There is a strong sense of wonder underlying all this striving to analyse: a humane, humble vulnerability. As Burton says of the soul: 'We understand all things by her. What she is we cannot comprehend.'
The return at the end to a solitary, melancholic Burton, apologising for his own play: 'I have anatomised my own folly... Pardon,' is touching. Bell brings us back to Burton as a fragile man struggling with his own state of mind. And I do forgive the play's length and wordiness, on account of its quirky humanity.
Find out more about stan's cafe : http://www.stanscafe.co.uk