Damon Albarn new opera: Dr Dee: a review
Manchester International Festival
Manchester Palace Theatre
One of the flagship events of the Manchester International Festival, Dr Dee is the latest creation from Damon Albarn joint with Rufus Norris. Subtitled An English Opera, it’s a brilliantly staged creation that looks at the life and death of sixteenth century English alchemist John Dee in a series of tightly packed set pieces that are stunningly imaginative and brilliantly staged.
As a spectacle the whole opera is mind blowing, the only tricky part is actually following the story as it’s often not that easy to tell exactly what is going on. Whether that matters or not is a moot point because from the very start of the whole experience you are lost inside a strange, dark and magical world of medieval atmospheres and strange dank alchemy.
There are nods to the films of Peter Greenaway with the quirky atmospherics and a subtle macabre. Whilst the music led by Albarn himself with his band of knaves, including the wonderful Tony Allen on drums, play middle ages instruments that tip their madrigal hats towards the dusk pulses of Michael Nyman but with an olde English folk stench of piss stained smocks with a touch of the attractive gloom Albarn’s very own the Good The Bad and Queen.
Albarn himself sits on a rising roof above the stage with his band of clanking knaves singing the songs which act as the backdrop as the story unfurls of a lost world of weird potions and quack science in desperate and strange times- the confusion of which matches our own with our current desperate search for shaman and quick answers.
The alchemists were a strange breed, somewhere between witch doctor, shaman and chemical adventurer they laid the foundations for modern medicine more by accident than design as they tried to make sense of the world and the universe with the shaky starting point of all the knowledge allowed by the bible. John Dee himself, claimed to be attempting to find solid ground in an unstable universe. He quickly found that the chaos was all too consuming and the biblical naysayers and the petty minded authorities who saw Satan everywhere marginalised him and he died in poverty.
As an example of his times Dee is perfect. A enquiring mind and a polymath with an incredible thirst for knowledge, he read everything and his mind was the ultimate quagmire of alchemic possibility perfect for the era of the English reformation of the late sixteenth century when the old certainties of god and the bible were finally being questioned by the more enquiring minds. This was, of course, a dangerous process, as he would find out to his own cost as he was sidelined, marginalised and hounded out of the mainstream.
Damon Albarn has never had to worry about getting hounded out of the mainstream but to his credit he has fucked with the fabric. A musical polymath, his restless running around into different genres from Blur to the Gorillaz has been quite fascinating to watch. At the last Manchester International Festival his Monkey play was a stunning appropriation of the then popular kung Fu/ martial art films spectaculars like Crouching Tiger whilst the Goriilaz are a brilliant conceptual cocktail of 21st century pop ideas.
This time he is operating closer to home with the searching for the soul of England, it was something he touched on in Blur with an eloquent commentary of Britpop, Ben Sherman and Doc Marten pop and this search is very much at the heart of Dr Dee. There are hints of St George and the soul of England and there is a quintessential Englishness everywhere in the opera from the intro with the Raven fluttering about to the bowler hatted businessman doing the John Cleese silly walk to the mohicanned punk sauntering his way across the stage- the images of England stagger past as Albarn intones his stark neo folk acoustic songs over the top.
Following that the set pieces come thick and fast. Books fly in the air and open like concertinas, galleons float by, tables are pounded, beds are wheeled past with couples fucking. There are devils, spells and all manners of old time weirdness. It’s visually stunning with a multiple media barrage of ideas and great acting, Dr Dee is a total trip. It conjures up the atmosphere of the endless grime and scratching in the dirt of ideas of those not so long and lost times. If, at first, you felt the middle ages was something from school history books then you are forced to reconnect with the recent past and realise that we are still living in medieval times and fast cars and the hi tech cannot deny this.
The music matches this mood and it’s rainy day claustrophobic dinginess is quite wonderful, the old instrumentation works really well and Tony Allen’s stunning drumming is not relying on the Afro beat that he invented but for very English rhythms that could be 500 years old or beamed direct from a long lost John Peel show.
As a piece of thought provoking atmospheric that takes you to another place and another time, Dr Dee is quite brilliant, just don’t worry about following the story!