There's a great joke in the Channel 4 sitcom Fresh Meat when a nerdy character reveals, apparently seriously, that he is compiling a list of "All known things; known to man" divided into the categories of "good and bad". He reads the beginning of the list to his companion: "Fudge - good, Denim - good, rollerblading - bad, Deep Impact - good, Armageddon - definitely bad. At first I thought Coke Zero was bad, now I'm thinking maybe it's good. I just need more time to think about it; it's actually quite a complicated product."

The absurd incongruity of the items on the list generates most of the humour (as it does in the more famous Borges joke about the Chinese Encyclopedia with its list of animal types "mermaids, suckling pigs, innumerable ones, others" and so on). But I prefer the joke in Fresh Meat as it's enhanced by both its delivery and its reception – the joke becomes purposeful, deepening the viewers' understanding of the characters, and the nature of their relationship. Anyway even if you don't like the joke, the scene is only a minute long.

Burton's 16th-century treatise on the anatomy of melancholy has often been regarded as a similar kind of joke list by readers as diverse as Laurence Sterne (who pillaged it for Tristram Shandy) and the critic Northop Frye, who considered the 900-page compendium to be a perfect Menippean satire.

By contrast with the mixed priorities of the sitcom joke, this adaptation of Burton's compendium by Stan's Cafe shows no interest in creating characters or developing any kind of narrative tension. Instead it is interested mostly in the list. Or in fact lots of different lists, which are divided into partitions, sections, members and subjects, and usually accompanied by reference to antique antecedents (in the original Latin or Greek or French). And though these lists may not always be funny or interesting or even comprehensible, they will it seems be given in full. For three hours.

To be fair there is a warning in the programme that "the show is long and full of content. Don't worry if you find yourself drifting off and thinking of something else". A benevolent concern on the part of our hosts only slightly undermined by the concluding instruction to "Have fun" [in bold].

Unfortunately, being irredeemably bourgeoisie, I found without the meliorating framework of a character driven drama, I just couldn't. And so instead of having fun I spent most of the time longing for something to happen, wondering what kind of person might enjoy the play (sociopaths, narcoleptics, the cast of Last of the Summer Wine) and considering what experience watching it most reminded me of. At first I thought of the time I wandered into the wrong university lecture hall and sat through a neuroscience lecture on sardine brains.

Yet later as my resentment faded into apathy and regret, I realised it was mostly reminiscent of the driving awareness course I went on after jumping a red light. On the A4. In Chiswick. It was half one in the morning, there really was nothing else on the road … but alas! like Burton I've allowed myself to digress and be consumed by irrelevant, or at best peripheral, details. "Plus ça change" – Jean Baptiste Karr (proffered in place of "C'est la vie" for which known authority is lost). Am I trying your patience yet? Honestly this is what it's like. For three hours.

This is a terrible shame as Gerard Bell, Rochi Rampaul, Graeme Rose and Craig Stephens are a terrific ensemble cast who speak Burton's prose with often exquisite precision. The production values and indeed the attention to detail in much of the scripting and directing which moves across a dozen teaching panels are also frequently impressive. Yet only Gerard Bell, as Burton himself (an aging vicar in a dark cassock) has a name, let alone a character. The others are glorified narrators in doublet-and-hose. The framing device that they are together composing and correcting the text as they check through it is too weak to sustain interest, while the slapstick illustrations of the text are rarely engaging. Oddly, given that the conceit of adapting Burton is absurdly ambitious, the treatment of the text is almost reverential while the direction is decidedly conservative.

The Anatomy of Melancholy apparently contains "about 516,384" words. Remarkably by the time the production concluded I felt like I'd heard almost all of them – and yet it ends with just one word appropriately printed on its own piece of A4 and held aloft – "Pardon". Apt, but after everything, notwithstanding and in full consideration, ultimately, just as it were, a smidgen, or even a smidgette, or at least tad, plainly it doth seemeth to me to be, and I hasten to add not to importune but to only benefit such gentle readers as are yet unpersuaded to quest merits as might or might not be in this art conveyed – insufficient.

The Anatomy of Melancholy, at Ovalhouse

A superfluity of learned prognostications concerning the diversity of phenomena bracketed beneath the banner of melancholia may lead to the transmutation of the divining witness from a state of live complicity to one of ingracious slumber. At the Ovalhouse Theatre.

 

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