It sounds like an epic task to make an entertaining night’s theatre out of a 400-year-old door-stopper about depression, but inventive troupe Stan’s Café make an admirable fist of things, as four actors recite the good bits from Robert Burton’s tome, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Published in 1621, this ultimate mis-lit manual was a ground-breaking work combining science, philosophy and Renaissance thinking, compiled with a subtle and self-aware wit that modern naval-gazers might well learn from.
The essence of Burton’s thinking is this: look outwards to understand melancholy, not just inwards. "I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy," explains the author’s alter-ego Democritus Junior, played like an affable uncle here by Gerard Bell. The intellectual voyage that then proceeds will not be for everyone – the program tells you that drifting off is normal and okay, and there are long stretches where you’ll end up thinking about what shopping you need. But persevere and this play does offer a rare glimpse inside the mind of a pre-Enlightenment scholar who was way ahead of his time.
Director James Yarker and the other performers – Rochi Rampal, Graeme Rose and Craig Stephens – do their best to break up the lecture into a lively presentation with songs, movement and a clever use of props, and the costumes by Kay Wilton are wittily put together. It is a testament to the troupe's skill that the text is always clear. This is probably the best way to digest a difficult book like Burton’s, so for anyone studying the period or interested in the origins of modern thought, this well-choreographed show can only be helpful.
The Anatomy Of Melancholy is on at Ovalhouse until 30 November.
Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.