14.07.2011, Words by Charlie Jones

Dr Dee

Four years after Monkey: Journey To The West, his first musical and one commissioned by Manchester International Festival, Damon Albarn has returned to the festival with a new “folk-opera”, co-produced with theatre director Rufus Norris. Dr Dee uses the figure of John Dee, polymath, Renaissance man and advisor to Queen Elizabeth, to meditate – without any distinct conclusions – on Englishness, Empire and spirituality. The embattled figure of Dee ruthlessly searches for knowledge both earthly and otherwise, yet is manipulated, misunderstood and eventually cast aside, as Elizabeth’s death lives him with no role, with a new monarch distrusting of his brand of supernaturalism.

Albarn’s attempts to highlight the relevance of Dee’s story today are made clear from the off: a procession of English stereotypes – the Victorian, the Tudor, the 70s punk – strut and parade across the stage before disappearing, the implication being that Dee is as archetypal a figure of Englishness as those that preceded him onstage. The play’s celebration of a talented man blighted by complicated personal difficulties makes an English hero from a flawed figure. Dee’s struggles with his own intellect are made real through Norris’s direction. Intricate animated projections clouding the stage with formulae and diagrams is just one example of the director’s depiction of Dee’s frantic and fragile mental state, accompanying the orchestra’s furious building to a frenzied climax as Dee falls apart.

Musically, Albarn has grown into the roll of composer and is at home with the dynamics of a full orchestra. While the musicians in the pit beneath him offer little to surprise, considering the nature of the staging, it is the adaptation of the typical guitar band setup on Albarn’s stage level that impresses the most, specifically afrobeat drummer Tony Allen’s sparse tribal motifs that drive the action without threatening to overpower it. Albarn’s own additions are mostly lazily-strummed ballads that alternate between a simple backing for his melancholic, Nick Cave-esque narration and a more direct, song-driven accompaniment to the action.

At points, Dr Dee risks resembling the spoof Thomas More musical that closed Steve Coogan’s 2008 tour – a sort of laboured, pseudo-intellectualism that begins to get lost in its own importance. It’s also troubled by the fact that Albarn – both narrator and commentator, and hovering above the stage – is more often the focus of attention than Bertie Carvel’s John Dee, a weakness that comes to a head when Albarn, somewhat predictably, hogs the explosive closing finale with a swaggering vocal display at the expense of the silenced protagonist below him.

With a year until it relaunches in London, Dr Dee can only improve on what is already an impressive offering. Its pitfalls – few as they are – are purely as a result of expecting too much of an audience that, after all, had likely not encountered the protagonist prior to Albarn’s opera. Inventive and clever in its staging, and soundtracked by a watertight selection of tracks most closely resembling Albarn’s Gorillaz project, circa Plastic Beach, Dr Dee offers enough to placate any one of Albarn’s disparate fanbase.

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