Review: Dr Dee – Palace Theatre, Manchester

“You know I cannot see, nor scry”

Continuing to stretch his wings, Damon Albarn returned to the Manchester International Festival, where his Monkey: Journey to the West was quite the success, with another quasi-operatic work, this time based on a mysterious Elizabethan figure – Dr Dee: A Very English Opera. Doctor John Dee was a man of varied talents whose influence was such that it was he who chose the optimum day for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation: he also dabbled in philosophy, astrology and alchemy at a time of great new learning, but personal demons and temptations ultimately led to his downfall.

With a story as rich in potential as this – Dee is reputed to have been the inspirations for both Marlowe’s Faustus and Shakespeare’s Prospero – it then feels surprising that so little attempt has been made to develop a narrative. It was made worse on a personal level by employing someone as good as Bertie Carvel – so very good in Matilda and soon to return as Ms Trunchbull – to play Dee but then leave him with so little to say – I was very much looking forward to another barnstorming performance.

But the clue is in the title, and the focus lies squarely on the music and on Albarn himself. Everything has to have a label and so this is subtitled ‘A Very English Opera’ which is basically shorthand for saying it’s not really an opera at all. There’s a band in a box, part of the BBC Philharmonic in the pit, excellently directed by Andre de Ridder, but Albarn places himself on a raised platform, surrounded by a vast selection of instruments ranging from obscure Elizabethan ones to the world music tools that we have come to associate with him now.

The soundscape thus covers all bases, pulling influences from folk and world scenes with touches of Elizabethan sound mixing in with the Philip Glass-style music. It is surprisingly effective both vocally and musically, never outstaying its welcome though the sonic palette may seem a little wide than absolutely necessary at times: I just wish that Albarn had resisted the temptation to make himself the singing narrator or at least to make this part so dominant (at the expense of Carvel natch).

Rufus Norris provided spectacle that superficially pleased the eye: a flying raven, a parade of falling historical figures, eyecatching costumes and designs attempt to dazzle. But it is in the few moments where the story itself is allowed to breathe, free from distraction: Carvel’s mathematical monologue suggesting the tortured brilliance at work, surrendering his wife to his nemesis, Christopher Robson’s excellent Edward Kelly, a scene of excoriating pain that ultimately just hinted at what might have been.

As a co-production with the ENO, Dr Dee will be playing at the Coliseum in the future. It would be nice to think that this was a first draft and someone could meld Albarn’s vision with a stronger storytelling device, but as that would minimise his own role in the show, I can’t see it happening. If you think of going, read up on Dee first, it will help you immeasurably. And perhaps controversially, don’t think of it as an opera, but rather a high-end musical (more illustrious company says call it a masque).

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 9th July

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