Melencolia

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Anna Cummins discusses Albrecht Dürer, melancholy and the importance of being earnest with Peter Suart, the writer and star of the deep, dark and mysterious one-man production, Melencolia

"Gleams of light in a dark land.” That’s Peter Suart’s concise, pertinent appraisal of his newest stage production, Melencolia. Indeed, it would seem just by the topics that the British artist and playwright’s new production touches upon – ‘melancholy, the Iconoclastic Fury, the decline of Christianity in Britain, translation, black dogs and the Hong Kong riots of 1967’, according to the man himself – his return to the Hong Kong stage is undeniably dark.

Suart, however, has long been noted for such mysteriously cerebral work. And so it’s no surprise, that the former Hongkonger – who is a renowned veteran of our artistic scene, with his many creative talents manifesting themselves in influential theatrical, musical, written and illustrative forms over the years – is completely unapologetic about the intensity of his latest production. “We are now so soaked in triple-irony that earnestness is a capital offence. I here speak plainly: I am earnest. But still, I like to laugh. Black comedy is one of mankind’s great arts. A pin-prick just when things are getting too much is a good thing. I performed the piece [Melencolia] in two venues in the UK. In one, there was not one giggle all night; in the other, there were outbursts of mirth throughout. There’s nowt so queer as folk.”

A one-man stage production, Melencolia is an exploration of ‘historical, philosophic and religious issues, explored via speech, gesture, projections and recorded music’. It is the sixth of a series of plays by Suart, which together form his ‘Eternity Cabaret’, with each play in the series engaging with the theme of eternity. In this latest instalment, some of Suart’s key inspirations were a series of three engravings, created in the 16th century by German polymath Albrecht Dürer. Subject to intense discussion and interpretation over the years, the most well-known of these engravings, Melencolia I, is the eponymous work in question. The mysterious image certainly has many hallmarks of melancholy; two despondent winged figures sit among an emptying hourglass and an empty set of scales, with a faint human skull visible to those who look for it. 

Suart says he was drawn to Dürer’s engraving due to the way it encourages the viewer’s meditation. “Northern Europe is my artistic homeland,” he says. “Dürer, Bosch, Brueghel, van der Weyden, Kay Nielsen, the great cathedrals. The print Melencolia I is one of the world’s great enigmatic images. It rewards repeated contemplation. Its meanings are ever-opening. And it is beautiful. Video is the dominant visual form of our world. Watching countless short clips a week leaves us jaded. The image that does not move lasts longer. Be still and look.”

In a similar way, Suart hopes the audience will sit back and allow the numerous themes of the play to grow on them over time. “[The] themes [of Melencolia] appear briefly: for five minutes or five seconds. Some develop through the show; others are touched on and remain unelaborated. As the piece progresses, the audience may feel and understand the thickening reverberation of ideas and sentiments. With a fair wind, these reverberations may push viewers out of their world.” 

The basic story at the heart of Suart’s production tells of different incidents which interweave throughout the course of the evening – these incidents sometimes occur in a derelict chapel in the middle of an English wood in 1967; a calm scene that is juxtaposed against the Hong Kong riots raging in that same year. At other times, the story focuses on a pre-WWII Nuremberg. 

Yes, it does sound complicated and a little abstract. But while the themes in Melencolia may seem extraordinarily diverse at first glance, Suart says they all deftly come together, ultimately. “Melancholy is the spine [of the production]. There are links [between the themes]. For example, the city of Nuremberg offered several [links]: Dürer’s hometown, the site of Reformation debate, of the Nazi Rallies, Allied bombing, and the post-war Trials. Thus Nuremberg is a deep link. Other [links] are slight or incidental. The result is a woven cloth of strands which hum with relatedness, near or far.”

While the concepts behind this production are deep and multifaceted, one thing is for sure – the audience will be taken on one hell of a visual and mental journey for the duration of Melencolia.

When we come to ask Suart what his take-home message for the audience would be, he confounds once more with his wry humour. “On no account ever go to see that man again.” We’ll let the audience decide on that one.  

Melencolia is at Shouson Theatre, Hong Kong Arts Centre Jul 12-13 Tickets: 2734 9009; urbtix.hk 

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