What a strange and beguiling piece of work this is. Written and composed by Damon Albarn (from Blur to Gorillaz via Monkey: Journey to the West) and director Rufus Norris, and premiered last year in Manchester (though since revised), it explores the life of John Dee, the Elizabethan polymath who counted mathematics and translating the language of the angels (they speak Enochian, apparently) among his specialist subjects. Chiefly through the medium of operatically inclined music, but also through dance and accompanied by stunningly realised visuals, it relates through a series of episodes, tableaux and vignettes the life of a man who today would be regarded as a brilliant nutter but who in his lifetime became an adviser to Elizabeth I.
The staging is a curious affair. The main orchestra is in the pit, but Albarn and a small collective of acoustic musicians sit in a long, low structure at the back of the stage that resembles the concrete waiting room of a 1960s bus shelter and can be raised and lowered to accommodate the events on stage. (These musicians alone would attract a sizeable paying audience, with Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen and kora maestro Mamadou Diabaté among their number.) Albarn sings and, as might be expected for someone not noted for the power of his vocals, he has by far the least impressive singing voice. But somehow, with its frail tenderness, his voice blends with the textures of the thing. The score uses rhythms and harmonies that are recognisably Elizabethan, but without descending into pastiche. It is very English and very beautiful (though the amplification gives the voices a certain harshness).
The opening scenes effectively convey Dee’s delirium in the acquisition of knowledge and books, and his genius for mathematics: “This is the language of heaven,” sings Dee (Paul Hilton, excellent) as a blizzard of numbers and squiggles tumble around him in a brilliant use of projection. He then successfully divines the correct date for Elizabeth I’s coronation and marries one of her ladies-in-waiting. So far so good.
Into the picture comes Kelley, a mysterious shaven-headed accomplice who introduces Dee to the art of “scrying” – contacting the angels. Dee consents to his accomplice’s lascivious demand that he should share his wife, on the dodgy theological basis that: “Nothing is unlawful which is lawful unto God.” Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spy master, periodically appears – on stilts, booming threateningly. The name of Faust is invoked. It gets dark and the narrative becomes murky.
What’s really impressive about this production is how it seamlessly blends all of its elements – music, dance, visuals – into something that is not an opera but a thing unto itself. The price, though, is that it lacks psychological insight and narrative clarity. Who is John Dee? Where did Kelley come from? One of the ironies of the piece is that it is excellent at showing transitions and the passage of time – the middle-aged Dee disappears behind a screen on to which is projected a line-drawn animation of him as an old man with a stick; thus he shortly emerges on the other side of the screen. Yet when the end comes, when his end comes, it is something of a shock: is his life (and the show) over so soon? We’ve only just met him!
Dr Dee’s achievement, though, is to whet our appetites by giving us a flavour of the man and of a time when the line between mathematics and magic was blurred, and it does so absorbingly and at times grippingly.