Dr Dee – Manchester, Myth and Magic

There’s a real buzz about Damon Albarn‘s Dr Dee in the run up to the Olympics. He was on Jools Holland the other week talking about his opera, and I think I heard a song from it on Radio 2 when I was out and about last week.

I haven’t heard him say much about John Dee‘s links with Manchester, but it is because of those links that the opera was devised for the Manchester International Festival last year. I went to see it, as I have been fascinated by the story for some years. I also really regretted not getting tickets for Monkey in a previous festival, and I didn’t want to regret missing Dr Dee.

He was strange figure, playing an important role at the Elizabethen court as a magician and mathematician, a conjuror and astrologer. He fell out of favour and was exiled to Manchester, where he allegedly attempted to levitate Manchester Cathedral. I was thrilled to discover that a group of Manchester psychogeographers tried to repeat this event a few years ago. How fantastic! That area of Manchester is still part of my dreamscape – not quite as it is in reality, but along with a dream version of Leeds railway station, it appears in my remembered dreams several times a year.

It is thought that John Dee was the inspiration for Prospero and Faustus, two of the most powerful and mysterious figures in Elizabethan drama. His scrying mirror – a polished piece of obsidian, Aztec in origin – has featured in the recent BBC series Shakespeare’s Restless World, and is part of the British Museum‘s collection.

The opera portrays a broken man, tricked by his so called friend and teacher. It’s a fascinating blend of visuals, words and music. The sets are amazing, and one point there is a crow that steals the show. It’s not a pop opera,nor a stage musical yet it’s accessible. It’s very charming,authentic and folkloric, international in the mix of musicians and instruments, and yet quintessentially English.It extended my appreciation of Damon Albarn and the tragedy of John Dee‘s rise and fall. I feel privileged to have seen it in Manchester, and before the hooha of the Olympics takes it over.

Words: Nicky Crewe

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