Features Published 22 October 2014

The Music of Melancholy

Finn Beames, Artistic Director of opera company bodycorps, on exploring mental health issues on stage, intertwining Renaissance thought with contemporary neuroscience, and staging Robert Burton's epic, The Anatomy of Melancholy.
Natasha Tripney

How do you perform the experience of depression? How do you make something so individual and internal live on the stage? That’s something Finn Beames and his company bodycorps are trying to explore with their new opera, named for and drawing inspiration from, Robert Burton’s epic text of 1621, The Anatomy of Melancholy

“This is something we thought about a lot,” he says, this idea of encapsulating depression, of pinning it down. “It’s such a crucial part of this project. That’s why it’s an opera really, as it can give an abstract sense of the emotional experience of being depressed or extremely anxious.”

“One of the problems in the way people think about mental health” he says, “is that it’s hard to relate to. We don’t know how to empathise with someone whose brain is working so differently to ours.”

When a psychiatrist suggested he make an opera about the experience of misery, Beames decided to revisit Burton’s book. It was a work he knew, having read it as a student, but he didn’t feel it was possible to make a straight-forward adaptation – though Stan’s Café recently tried to do just that, the meditative, almost hypnagogic results of this exercise not to everyone’s taste. Beames instead decided to find another way in to the text, using it as a springboard, incorporating other people’s ideas about melancholy and depression. In this way, incorporating music, he hopes to find new ways to discuss issues surrounding mental health and the experience of unhappiness, to add shade and intricacy to the debate.

“The protagonist is a young man who is depressed; his father is a molecular psychiatrist, while his grandfather has read a book much like Burton’s book. The predicament is this: how, when you are depressed, do you live in a world where these divergent theories exist, where there are such vastly different approaches to the way that your brain works?”

Music, he feels is fundamental, to his exploration of this division. The show, which will be performed at Battersea’s Testbed 1 – a venue which “is quite beautiful but also quite big so we are really able to play with depth” – will be performed by a cast eight musicians, six singers and an actor; the lone actor will be isolated and yet surrounded by activity, “his singing very different to everyone else’s, his lines are drawn out and long.”

Beames’ libretto intertwines Renaissance theory with contemporary research, while the production combines live feed video projections with live performance. This Anatomy began life as a nine-minute piece using text from the book which was initially created in response to a call out from the Wellcome Trust. It has since grown in scale and scope, enfolding the most recent research about the relationship between genetics and mental health. Originally commissioned to be performed during International Brain Awareness Week in 2013, it was supported by the New York-based DANA Foundation through the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies. “The tension in the show is between these Renaissance models of mental health and these very forward-looking models.”

The show, he believes, still remains true to the spirit of Burton’s work, “to the empirical attitudes of the book. But we’ve added to that our own perspectives on depression and society’s attitudes to depression.”

Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is a massive thing, says Beames, “there’s a lot of it. There are long passages in Latin and Burton was a scholar, a lot of it is him compiling what everyone else thinks about mental health up until that point in time. It’s also really literary; some parts of it feel like poetry; some parts of it are poetry. The main thing that we’ve taken from it is the idea of the four humours in your body which are responsible for your temperament. It’s a very simple metaphor for understanding this idea of balance, of accepting that there are moods that people experience which need not be problems to be solved, things to be treated.”

It won’t always be clear, he hopes, which parts of the opera have been drawn from Burton and which are contemporary. “Parts of the text feel quite modern. There’s a universality to the things he’s describing.  There are long passages about envy and desire, which continue to have huge impact on our collective mental health.”

Beames is careful with his words when he speaks, aware of the impact of language on people’s conceptions of mental health; he avoids the word ‘disorder.’ “Depression is something people have really strong ideas about,” he says, “what it’s like, either for them, or someone they know. So what I’m really keen to say is this only one version of it. It’s not supposed to be the quintessential depressed experience.”

“One thing I’m keen to not do is to have a manifesto or a mission statement for the show,” he emphasises, “as it’s a piece of art which just happens to be about something which is a big issue at the moment.” That said he does believe that “attitudes are changing,” and this is reflected in the kind of work that’s being made at the moment; witness Ridiculusmus’ formerly adventurous The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland.

“What I don’t quite have a handle on,” continues Beames, “is how bold we’re being in talking about it. It’s hard to measure. People’s access to services and information about mental health varies so much, even across different boroughs of London, so there’s a massive difference in how you might be perceived or treated depending on where you’re from. The way to be helpful is to be as honest as I can about my own experiences, to start a conversation. This can be terrifying. But by creating a piece of work that people can talk about, that’s a way of beginning.”

Bodycorps’ The Anatomy of Melancholy is at Testbed1, London, from 22nd-25th October 2014

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Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.

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