When John Dowland, England's great and gloomy Elizabethan composer, wrote his heartfelt lute songs in the 16th century, he reached beyond the boundaries of fashion. Just listen to 'In darkness let me dwell' and you'll be struck by how contemporary it feels. As for 'Flow, my tears', which he published in 1600, it's one of the longest-serving hit songs ever written, interpreted by singers ranging from early music specialists to pop stars such as Sting. Evidently there's something endlessly fascinating about the relationship between Dowland's music and intense melancholy.


Or at least, that's the thinking of the British opera and theatre director, designer and video artist Netia Jones, who is spotlighting that relationship in a new experimental theatre production at the Barbican's Pit Theatre this month. Featuring live performance alongside multimedia elements, 'An Anatomy of Melancholy' takes Dowland's output as a springboard for an exploration, as Jones puts it, of 'what happens in our encounter with music of such expressive and extreme beauty that is so very sad.'

In it we will hear Dowland's music, performed live in the round by countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Thomas Dunford. But we will also hear recorded excerpts from Robert Burton's 17th-century treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy, as well as the writings of Sigmund Freud and the contemporary British psychoanalyst Darian Leader. That's because Jones believes that understanding our reaction to Dowland's music involves viewing it from multiple angles: 'I was interested in this idea of melancholy, of what melancholy signifies, what it might mean now, and why the term 'melancholy' has turned into other things, one of them being depression.'

For her, these three authors offer acute insight. 'Burton says there is nothing closer to hell on earth than a melancholy man's life, so he clearly understands the degree of suffering [that melancholy can bring]' says Jones. 'Meanwhile Leader reflects on the fact that, to a degree, we have medicalised this emotion of melancholy, but also that the pharmaceutical industry has definitely not alleviated it, given the statistics for this umbrella term of "depression".'

As for Freud: 'I'm not particularly a fan of his,' says Jones: 'I think a lot of women might not be. There's an insistent misogyny all through Freud's thinking that is inescapable for a modern thinking woman and yet he explores the idea of melancholy in relation to the idea of mourning in a helpful way.' Such as? 'He says that in mourning the sufferer knows what he's lost and in melancholia the sufferer feels the same emotions but doesn't quite know what is lost. So melancholia is possibly a more complex set of emotions because it's hard to pin down.'

Not everybody in the audience will be sold on these interpretations, and that's fine by Jones. 'I'm not offering up any conclusions or hypotheses [on these texts].' What she does offer, she says, is an opportunity to reflect on them, and to that end she has included in her production a series of video projections that eschew the didactic in favour of mood-setting. 'The thing that has led me the most is the description of melancholia, found in both Burton and Freud, as feeling submerged; as a sense of drowning.'

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On the specifics of what we will see, she remains mysterious. That, according to Iestyn Davies, is Jones's style. 'Netia and I have never sat down and discussed exactly what she's going to project; she likes to keep her cards close to her chest.' Given that he is one of Dowland's best-known and devoted advocates, how does Davies feel about that? 'There's a lot of trust with Netia. The way her brain works is very neat, tidy and efficient and I like that. I can understand her saying "what I need you to do is what you do best; I'll do what I do best, and we'll trust each other."'

Does he trust her to enhance the music rather than distract from it? 'Dowland's music is quite spare, and within the silence there is space [for interpretation].' He continues: 'With music of this period it's easy to fall back into thinking of "hey nonny no!" and people with big ruffs and tankards. What [Netia] will hopefully do is to take it out of its Elizabethan context and make it sound like nothing written in 1600.'

Davies hopes that this production will underline what he loves most about Dowland's music: its ability to soothe through its very sadness. 'Sad songs appeal to everyone,' he says. 'Listening to sad music is like looking at a soap opera or car crash on TV. You don't have to actually experience that thing but you still get the cathartic effect of having lived it. Then you come out the other side and you're still alive. It's like having a good cry.'

Jones agrees: 'Part of the fabric of the production is this idea that music offers us understanding, something richer than consolation, something that allows us to understand our feelings and live with them.' Is that her take-home message? 'I don't tend to formulate the thought of what I hope the audience will take away,' she says. ' All I can do as a theatre maker is create something that I'm thinking about and share it.’

‘An Anatomy of Melancholy’ runs at Barbican’s Pit Theatre from 27-30 October. www.barbican.org.uk


Photo: Lightmap


Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.