An Anatomy of Melancholy review – lively musical study of an indefinable condition

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“If there is a hell on earth, it is in the heart of a melancholic man,” wrote Robert Burton, whose 1621 work The Anatomy of Melancholia attempted to pin down this elusive condition and so fashionable. In previous decades, John Dowland had embodied melancholy in his lute songs. Up close in the Pit Theatre, director and videographer Netia Jones reunites Dowland, Burton and other writers in a production for countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Thomas Dunford that falls somewhere between stage recital and mini-opera.

The intimate set, with the audience on all four sides, is a room with a desk covered in potted plants, coffee mugs, a laptop and books. Glass cabinets hold more plants as well as test tubes of colored liquid. Davies – his voice subtly amplified, singing tirelessly but looking haggard in Stevie Porter’s cold lighting – moves endlessly between them, searching for answers. Dunford sits with his back to him, leaning over his lute. Singing and playing as one, they were in the room together and yet alone, so much so that it seemed almost fake to see their faces together like drowning men, one of many images from the videos projected on four wall screens above.

Iestyn Davies

Iestyn Davies. Photography: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

But what exactly is melancholy? Jones punctuated Dowland’s songs with recorded readings of Burton, Freud, psychoanalyst Darian Leader, and others, and these sometimes seemed to equate him with depression, which was unconvincing. Dowland’s music can indeed be dark in songs such as In Darkness Let Me Dwell – which started and ended the program here in complete blackout, effective conceit. Yet elsewhere the music combats this: Dowland pinpoints so vividly the state of being miserably but pleasantly in love, even with occasional innuendo; and the way the lute continues to search for harmonies means the music has the opposite of the smothering effect of depression.

There’s an almost epicurean streak in many of Dowland’s songs, a feeling that makes us all connoisseurs of melancholy. Davies and Dunford gave us many opportunities to be musical connoisseurs; as for the melancholy, this staging only resembled a partial examination.

• An Anatomy of Melancholy is at the Pit Theatre, Barbican until 30 October. The 9 p.m. performance on Friday, October 28 will be broadcast live.

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