I did a bit of research on DR DEE beforehand. Every year when I’m teaching students studying the Live Theatre course at summer school at Kingston University I like to include, among the cross section of plays, a musical. And that’s tricky. There aren’t many – any – that aren’t either American or been on for so so so long that …
Then I read about Damon Albarn‘s opera, playing for just a handful of performances at the Coliseum, and it looked like a likely candidate. Opera is not part of my remit but this didn’t sound like opera in the conventional sense. Nor was it.
The production, put together by Albarn and director Rufus Norris and choreographed by Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, is visually breathtaking. There are two bands – one in the pit and the other on a platform above the stage (representing perhaps hell and heaven respectively). Albarn himself sings and plays guitar. The stagecraft is breathtaking. Queen Elizabeth spends a good deal of the first act suspended above the stage, her massive golden robes enfolding her subjects below. Real ravens fly in and out again. Strange concertina-like white screens snake across the stage masking deft furniture and scene changes.
But I’m darned if I could understand a word of it. I’d been warned – hence the research – so I knew Dee was a mathematician/astrologer/occulist and ‘angelologist’ (I read the word somewhere so it must exist). That he was highly influential in Elizabeth’s court and was consulted on the date of her coronation, yet fell out of favour when he hooked up with an Edward Kelley – a ‘scryer’ (fortune teller) who managed to convince Dee the angels told him he should have his way with Dee’s wife – and became so obsessed with consorting with angels that Walsingham, who rather oddly donned stilts in the second half, lost patience with him.
Yet none of this would have been obvious if you didn’t have some knowledge beforehand, or had read the blurb in the programme. I don’t like to sound churlish by criticising what was one of the most magnificently-realised productions I’ve ever seen. But I kind of felt it was missing something, and that something was a writer.