The Anatomy of Melancholy at the Ovalhouse
One of the most peculiar books ever written in the English language has found an unlikely home in the Ovalhouse, Kennington. Robert Burton’s 1621 treatise has been adapted for the stage in a production that channels a recondite and complex examination of depression, its causes and its cures – all from a Jacobean perspective.
The play is set in Burton’s Oxford study, presenting the scholarly vicar apparently rehearsing for a stage adaptation of his text. Burton, studiously played by Gerard Bell, bumbles around a set that looks to have been inspired by Holbein’s The Ambassadors, as he fires out quotations upon the subject of melancholy. Three of his students contribute, helping to translate his classical dictum by holding up sheets of simple English translations. Easels cover every corner of the stage, each holding a large book. The audience is guided through the various particles, segments and chapters as the pages are turned – almost like the cogs of an antique clock.
The Elizabethans and Jacobeans were largely strange and quirky people; they had great interest in cosmology, astrology, alchemy and mysticism. Their Christian piety, though still strong, was melded with a revival in pagan superstition – James I wrote a ‘witch hunting’ handbook entitled Daemonologie and Ben Jonson wrote a play set in hell called The Devil Is an Ass. Furthermore, around this time the first English colony was established (Jamestown, Virginia) and the Renaissance, which had started three centuries earlier in Italy, finally reached Britain.
The years between 1558 and 1625 are therefore definitive in terms of British history and thus completely fascinating. The scholarship of Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy is surely analogous of this fact. However, despite the recent revival of interest in the period, the stage adaptation of this early enchiridion on psychology is at times torturous to watch.
It is a brave Londoner who, after a long days work, will choose to sit through this three-hour production of dense, archaic academia. Frankly, metaphysics on a Tuesday night – or indeed any night – just doesn’t quite hit the spot and its highfalutin esotericism will alienate most. It is not without merit; it is well-acted and many of the stage gambits work quite well – it even has a slapstick element à la Noises Off (the seventeenth century version). Ultimately though, this can only be recommended to the most cerebral scholars of Psychology and English Literature.
Guy de Vito
The Anatomy of Melancholy is on at the Ovalhouse until 30th November 2013. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch a trailer for the production here: