Stan’s Cafe has created a truly unique production in The Anatomy of Melancholy. This stage adaptation of Robert Burton’s 1621 work of the same name is a fascinating whirlwind of playful humour, emotion and, most importantly, an inventive presentation of seemingly endless amounts of information. Described as “the greatest book ever written”, Burton’s lengthy work (the final publication reached a grand total 516,384 words) explores the physical and spiritual roads towards melancholy, and offers an abundance of counter methods and advice towards its cure. This production is well structured, and in being so is highly reminiscent of a lecture or essay, with different points filed neatly into partitions, subheadings and subjects throughout. On the one hand, it allows the audience to drift easily in and out of the production, as we are encouraged to do in the programme, offering a clear bookmark to pick up watching from. Ultimately though, it is impossible to avoid a feeling that the actors are rattling off a list of words, definitions and phrases which wash over you so quickly that you can scarcely remember they were spoken in the first place. It is indicative of the nature of the text and the length of such a publication, however, which lends itself to this style and pace of performance, one that Stan’s Cafe maintains throughout with a youthful energy and franticness.
The performance is littered with light, humorous relief in the form of plastic snakes and shredded paper which are vomited up numerous times, a necessary throwback to more simple notions which provide the perfect counterpart to the complex and sophisticated writing and word play. Alongside this sits Rochi Rampal’s excretion of urine through a plastic bottle, another moment of comedy which keeps us on our toes amidst the countless flip boards and rush of lengthy explanations.
The addition of modern, personalised references to students at the university, and features of the local area not only serve to aid our understanding and encourage our engagement with the text, but are further evidence of how relevant Burton’s work is in today’s society.
The mere fact that Stan’s Cafe has successfully edited down an iconic and daunting text into a coherent production is a triumph in itself. That the production is then able to embrace the heavy and thought-provoking nature of the work whilst allowing the audience humour, even in a section about grief and death, is symptomatic of the unique challenges this company have overcome with an inventive and theatrical approach to Burton’s philosophy.
The Anatomy of Melancholy is playing at Warwick Arts Centre until 15 March and is now on tour. For more information and tickets, see http://www.stanscafe.co.uk