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

<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

“If there be a hell upon earth, it is to be found in a melancholy man’s heart,” wrote Robert Burton, whose 1621 work The Anatomy of Melancholy attempted to pin down this elusive and then-fashionable condition. In the decades before, John Dowland had epitomised melancholy in his lute songs. Up close in the Pit theatre, the director and video artist Netia Jones brings Dowland together with Burton and other writers in a production for the countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Thomas Dunford that is somewhere between a staged recital and a mini-opera.

The intimate set, with the audience on all four sides, is a room with a desk covered in pot plants, coffee cups, laptop and books. Glass cabinets contain more plants plus test tubes of coloured liquid. Davies – his voice subtly amplified, singing tirelessly but looking haggard under Stevie Porter’s cool lighting – moves restlessly between them, looking for answers. Dunford sits with his back to him, bent around his lute. Singing and playing as one, they were in the room together and yet alone, so much so that it seemed almost wrong to see their faces together as drowning men, one of many images in the videos projected on to four wall-like screens above.

Iestyn Davies
Iestyn Davies. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

But what exactly is melancholy? Jones punctuated Dowland’s songs with recorded readings from Burton, Freud, the psychoanalyst Darian Leader and others, and these seemed at times to be equating it with depression, which didn’t sit convincingly. Dowland’s music can indeed be bleak in such songs as In Darkness Let Me Dwell – which began and ended the programme here in complete blackout, an effective conceit. Yet elsewhere the music fights this: Dowland pins down so vividly the state of being miserably yet enjoyably in love, even with the occasional innuendo; and the way the lute keeps searching out the harmonies means the music has the opposite of the deadening effect of depression.

There’s an almost epicurean slant to many of Dowland’s songs, a sense that he makes connoisseurs of melancholy out of us all. Davies and Dunford gave us plenty of chances to be musical connoisseurs; as to melancholy, this staging felt like only a partial examination.

• An Anatomy of Melancholy is at the Pit theatre, Barbican until 30 October. Friday 28 October’s 9pm performance will be livestreamed.