An Anatomy of Melancholy

Music by John Dowland
Barbican Pit

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An Anatomy of Melancholy Credit: Cordula Treml
An Anatomy of Melancholy Credit: Cordula Treml
An Anatomy of Melancholy Credit: Cordula Treml
An Anatomy of Melancholy Credit: Tristram Kenton
An Anatomy of Melancholy Credit: Tristram Kenton

Staged in-the-round in the intimate 164-seater Pit by visionary director Netia Jones, An Anatomy of Melancholy immediately makes me think of a medical lecture hall, we the inquisitive doctoral students. John Dowland, Robert Burton, Sigmund Freud, and Darian Leader, music and philosophy, mingle and merge across the ages.

Blow being a student, we have all graduated in melancholy, grief, sadness, and isolation these long last few years. And if music is consolation, give me more of it. Shakespearean quotes flood the mind not well-meaning psychoanalysis. The arts have kept many afloat in arid times. Have kept me from sinking into breakdown fugue after the sledgehammer of several deaths and a sudden solitary life. And that is the director’s point, the consolation of the arts and what it is to feel and express sorrow with its support. Is this concert necessary—it should be prescribed.

I am swept away. Music speaks where words fail. This one-hour concert is inspirational: Jones’s clever concept—she is credited with direction, design, including video design—is all enveloping, Iestyn Davies’s countertenor soars and fills the void with crystalline (his word for Dowland’s songs) timbres, and the icing on the whole confection is Thomas Dunford playing Dowland’s compositions. How can one not love the gentle lute...

As we enter a man lies on the floor (Hamlet?), another sits cradling his lute, around them four clear hanging screens, on which will be depicted molecular structures, a man under water, ink in water, nature morte (what looks like Dutch flower paintings but could a trick of Lightmap Studio video artists), and more.

A square central space, framed by glass cabinets full of pills, testing tubes, herbal plants, and desk (with Apple laptop…), Davies seems to be the melancholic alchemist seeking his own cure.

The first song is sung in darkness, as is the dying last, introspective, contemplative, piercing the soul with no external distractions. “If there is hell on earth it is in the heart of the melancholic” (Burton 1577–1640), and we have been dealing with it since man could think, in many guises.

Though many would think today that hell on earth is in recent wars, displacement, pestilential plague, and greed—enough to send us all into the deepest cataleptic depression. Leader’s thoughts on the chemical versus biological are prescient, on recent changes in society during lockdown isolation—we need to talk, hear the human voice, connect... and this world première visibly connects with many in the audience.

Is melancholy self-inflicted; is there pleasure in sweet sorrow, in wallowing in misery? If it sounds like this, it could be the best therapy. One needs to have an expressive outlet. Stevie Porter’s delicate dappled lighting design sooths us through the circles of hell, and live sound engineer Fred Defaye keeps it all pitch perfect.

An investigation of melancholy via Dowland’s simply wonderful compositions would be enough for me—I’ve loved them since I was introduced to them at university as a callow student—but we also get voiceover quotes from Robert Burton 1621 Anatomy of Melancholy, Sigmund Freud, and Darian Leader (mainly from his The New Black book published in 2009). Some words ride on the music, some obscure Dowland. Dunford on lute blending with Davies’s glorious instrument is the best balm.

A short run, but the 9PM performance on Fri 28 October will be live-streamed globally and available to watch until Sun 30 October at 9PM. You can buy a ticket up until this point. I urge you to do so—it’s a rare treat. Davies I have seen many times and Jones’s work I know at ENO, but Dunford is a revelation. There is no programme as such, but half a dozen free postcards, with visuals, cast, crew and philosophical quotes, are gifted on each seat. Don't dismiss them as flyers.

Reviewer: Vera Liber