The Manchester International Festival is well under way and part of this year’s spectacular programme is the latest work from Blur frontman Damon Albarn. A seemingly bizarre and brave concept, the piece is described as an “English Folk Opera” centring on the 16th Century astrologer, navigator, alchemist, occultist and royal adviser Doctor John Dee.
Dee did in fact have links to Manchester, having been appointed Warden of Christ’s College in the city by none other than Queen Elizabeth I herself, although many view this as an exile following Dee’s frowned-upon dabbles in the occult.
Dee remained in Manchester for a decade, studying at Chetham’s Library where it is rumoured he once summoned the devil; a burn mark supposedly from Satan’s hoof can still be seen on a desk there today. Albarn’s own affinity with the city stems from his time spent in the North West first debuting Gorillaz and later showcasing his first foray into opera, Monkey: Journey to the West at the MIF in 2007. It’s fitting therefore that two of Manchester’s adopted sons should come together to produce such an ambitious work.
And ambitious is only the start of it. First things first, don’t be put off because it’s an opera. Secondly, don’t feel bad if at points during the performance you’ve got little clue as to what’s going on. The whole spectacle needs to be taken in as a whole to truly appreciate its power.
Kicking off with a real live raven on stage, the opera then begins in earnest with Albarn sat on steps at the end of a long open fronted corridor. Throughout the show, this block floats up and down, and houses a band playing all forms of exotic instruments, mainly medieval style lutes and reed instruments which add an eerie backing to Albarn’s soulful croon.
Acting as puppet master to all that happens below him, Albarn remains hugely immersed in the production throughout and performs all of his guitar and vocal parts with gusto and real empathy for the plight that Dee often finds himself in.
The story progresses through Dee’s life through his days as consort to the Queen during which time he is credited in some circles as not only coming up with the whole notion of a “British Empire” but also with guiding many global voyages through his knowledge of cartography and astronomy. These scenes are played out magically with the Queen hoisted 20 feet into the air and sails fluttering in the ocean breeze. With the vastly experienced Rufus Norris at the production’s helm, it’s far from surprising that the direction is dazzling, but even so, the technological ideas used throughout the show add a very modern slant which somehow fits the period setting like a glove.
Things take a darker turn when we observe Dee cracking under his obsession with trying to summon angels through a ritual which he hoped would enable the learning of the universal language of creation. He is aided in this task by the mystical Edward Kelley who ends up being his closest confidante as well as the man who leads Dee to his furthest fall from grace. Kelley suggests to Dee that angels have told him they must share all they have, including Dee’s wife, Jane Fromond. At this point Dee’s world becomes destroyed and he becomes discredited and delusional with his life’s work.
The story is thought-provoking and confusing in equal measure just as Dee’s ideas were at the time. A disorientated audience isn’t normally a good thing, however somehow the whole experience is magical. Albarn’s brilliant, mournful vocals haunt the tale throughout and his obvious passion for the subject matter encourages the audience to really immerse themselves in the spectacle. The production itself is also excellently performed, both scary and touching in parts, and the staging of the opera with light shows, magical set changes and enthusiastic performances from the cast provide an amazing visual treat.
Reading about Dr Dee, his life was never simple or straightforward, and neither is this show. Fortunately however, Albarn and Norris have put together something that is spellbinding enough to entice a fair few people into getting to know the inimitable Dr Dee that little bit more.