Every year the city of Manchester hosts an international arts festival which is remarkable for consisting entirely of premieres, many of them quite high-profile and therefore high-risk. Last night I went with my son to Damon Albarn’s “English Opera” about Dr John Dee, the remarkable Elizabethan magician and mathematician who was, many believe, the prototype of Shakespeare’s Prospero and Marlowe’s Faustus.
Quite an interesting character – I wish I’d read more about him before I went because the show was more like a masque than an opera, in that it lacked any coherent narrative but presented a series of visually startling tableaux.
Albarn sees Dee as a great representative of English character and culture, and the opening set him in context by taking us backwards through time via a series of iconic English figures – Sid VIcious, John Cleese doing his silly walks, Emmeline Pankhurst, Jane Austen, Charles II. We then moved into a sequence dominated by huge concertina-like screens of paper, suggesting both the ruffs worn by gentlemen of the period and large tomes of magical lore. Albarn and a small, eclectic orchestra were on stage throughout, on an hydraulic platform – apparently the idea behind this was the multiple levels of Heaven, Earth and Hell in Renaissance cosmology.
There was an astonishing incantatory mathematical prologue – an amazing feat of memory in itself, given as symbols of scientific progress from the Golden Mean onwards were projected on said screens, quickly followed by an awesome coronation scene in which Elizabeth I, huge golden robes flowing from her figure on a high platform rather like Lady Gaga, presided over a fertility dance and Dee’s wedding night, accompanied by some beautiful and haunting music. Next up we saw Dee cooking up a storm to force back the Spanish Armada – an incident historically on record – it seems that he was the man you called when national crises called for a spell, or an auspicious date for a coronation.
And then it all got a bit confusing. A little man with a big voice announced he was the scryer, and there was a certain amount of smoke, mirrors, and mumbo-jumbo. After the interval this character hung around over a long period of time, having a malign influence on Dee’s domestic life, culminating in him convincing Dee that the universe had decreed that both of them should sleep with Mrs Dee, who was clearly unhappy with the set-up but didn’t appear to have any influence over events – she was, more or less, raped on stage with Dee looking on. Dee’s life had clearly gone into a downward spiral, and shortly afterwards he died with a lot of people calling him angry names and only his daughter left to comfort him. Albarn, who’d been on stage throughout (if anyone has seen Blood Brothers like WIlly Russell, he was similar to the Narratorr role played by John Conteh in the original production) rounded things off with an anthem to Dee and England in general, and rather more curtain calls than English modesty might consider strictly necessary.
It was, in fact, a marvellous spectacle and the music – with its blend of African, traditional Western and historical instruments, was brilliant, though it wouldn’t have passed the Broadway test of being memorable once you left the theatre. Those familiar with Gorillaz and Blur would have recognised his trademark minor keys and air of melancholy. Later, I read up a bit on Dee and understood that most of the second act was about his somewhat toxic relationship with Edward Kelley, but I wasn’t overwhelmed with the way that thread was developed and it seems at least one critic felt the same way. For all that, a bold and interesting show, well worth a look – I believe there’s going to be a London run at the Barbican.
It wouldn’t be a review if it didn’t bring Doctor Who into it at some point, and those who remember the soundtrack of Doomsday might like to know that the first person on the stage, a girl who carries a St George balloon and sings with ethereal beauty, was none other than Melanie Pappenheim. I didn’t realise until I got home.
I wonder if anyone has written DW fic about John Dee? He’d be the ideal character – either to meet the Doctor, or turn out to be the Doctor going undercover with his usual lack of success.
Footnote – slightly worrying that the arm between my seat and the next fell off – after my recent encounter with a collapsing seat in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre I might avoid seats in the gods until I’ve had a third similar incident without risk to life and limb. Not that I’m superstitious or anything…