Dr Dee – Manchester International Festival

Written for Exeunt Magazine.

Welcome Ladies and Gentleman to the world of Dr Dee. Images are presented for your delectation: an astral monarch is festooned with gold cloth, projected algebraic algorithms and magical incantations stain the stage like tattoos across skin, the planets dance for your pleasure and the spirits are conjured while Damon Albarn gives voice to English folk ballads with exquisite orchestrations.

Albarn’s opera charts the life of Dr John Dee – the 16th century astronomer, mathematician and occultist – from his days as am eager student, devouring reams of literature, to his time in the court of Queen Elizabeth; from young lover to tormented husband. Dee is said to have inspired both Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and William Shakespeare’s Prospero.

Rufus Norris and Albarn’s production is visually dazzling, a true feast for the eyes, and it’s not too harsh on the ears either. But their Dr Dee rarely transcends spectacle; the storytelling throughout remains fairly basic, a children’s picture book with glorious illustrations. Perhaps it is John Dee’s silence that makes this a weirdly 2D affair. Bertie Carvel feels underused as this Renaissance monolith because for the most part he is mute, a silent figure at the centre of a storm. Surely in the opera that bears his name, John Dee should be allowed to speak? What this production lacks is the confidence and guidance of a writer, someone capable of shaping Dee as a character and not just staging the happenings of his life.

What it does do is live up to Albarn’s subtitle: this is a very English opera. The lyrics and gentle melodies are pierced by an occasionally edgy discordant note and Albarn is brave enough to leave things incomplete, whilst his orchestrations, composed with Andre de Ridder, are sometimes breathtakingly complex and always highly polished. In his composition Albarn manages to recreate both an epic and intimate sense of England. He is also a compelling performer, completely absorbed in his playing.

Paul Atkinson’s versatile set of white harpsichord bookshelves and Katrina Lindsay’s wickedly punkish Elizabethan costumes are full of wit and ingenuity. Let it not be understated how truly beautiful this production is, with Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett working as movement directors and giving Norris’ production a balletic fluidity.

In a scene of distressing betrayal you get a glimpse of what this production could have been. As John Dee shares his wife with his grotesquely salacious medium the movement and music combine to give the scene real emotional gravitas; it’s a skin-crawling  depiction of an act  tantamount to rape. It scenes like these that demonstrate just how powerful this collision of artistic imaginations can be when used in the service of both storytelling and spectacle.

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