Dr. Dee

Last week I had the good fortune to go and see the new opera Dr. Dee at the London Colisseum.

Performed by members of the English National Opera, it was co-created by Rufus Norris and Damon Albarn.

I’ve been keen to see this for a while as I’ve recently read Benjamin Wolley‘s fairly comprehensive biography of John Dee, and I’ve found him to be a fascinating character.

He was a courtier to Queen Elizabeth the first. A scientist, a visionary, a clairvoyant and so on – almost responsible for the birth of England as a scientific nation.

I found the production incredibly moving. I’ve had the CD of Albarn’s soundtrack in the car, and have come to know and love it. It has been developed and re-worked a little since he recorded it which, though the original record was fine enough, fits really well with the story and visuals of the production.

Albarn sits on a kind of “barge” (with the rest of the band) that starts on ground level, then raises up to allow the action to take place. For most of the show he sits above watching the show unfold like a sort of spot-lit sprite, singing songs that colour and underpin the narrative.

And visually sumptuous it is too. There is most definitely a “followable” story, but the presentation is an astonishing visual feast, with concertina books sliding constantly across the stage, forming screens for visuals to be projected onto, as well as cover for the actors to change clothes and shift position. There are also other visual tricks, including live ravens flying across the stage, but I won’t spoil it for you….

The story as told by the opera does leave a lot of the finer detail of Dee’s life out, but somehow this makes the opera more impactful. It allows the emotion of the story to breath and land with you.

John Dee’s story is an amazing one, and one I can relate to in many ways. Very much a talented man, he came from an age when science and mystery were not so very far apart – a time when the spiritual realm was not something that was dismissed out of hand, but rather seen as part of science and complementary to it. More to the point, he hitched his wagon to a rather unsavoury character (Edward Kelley) who not only was not what he seemed, but was essentially very bad for Dee in the long term, destroying both his credibility and his marriage. Dee went from being the alchemistic golden boy, to second fiddle to Kelley, to financial and intellectual ruin, finally dying with his reputation in tatters. It’s a moving tale, and the opera brings this story home and to life, in a way that has sat in my head for days now.

For me, Dee’s tragedy is that there is no “happily ever after”, that in the exploration of complexity and nuance, he asked the questions that people didn’t dare to ask, and took risks, that ultimately undid him. Surrounded by political power and pressure (Walsingham) he buckled under the weight of expectation of others and himself. A tale for our age.

The opera raised many thoughts for me, and I’ll leave you with these questions:

Firstly around mental health. Was Edward Kelley schizophrenic? Was he a con man? How easy is it to allow yourself to be deceived? The play writes large the idea that you can be extremely talented but have your life derailed by another. In the liner notes in the show’s programme, Norris and Albarn talk about Dee’s pride blinding him to the reality of Kelley’s impact on his life. I’m not so sure. I think there was a loyalty of friendship, and a naiveté on Dee’s part, fostered by pressure from the political powers-that-be, that he could not really believe that Kelley was making it all up.

Secondly: About science and mystery. Modern life puts logic and science as a dualistic opposite of mystery, myth, religion and emotion. I think that rubbish, frankly. Nothing is that cut and dried, and Dee came from a time where such a dualism was unheard of. Have we lost something in the modernist separation of these disciplines?

Try and get to see it if you can. It’s worth it.

Social tagging: > > > > > > >

Leave a Reply