Dr Dee: Damon Albarn’s Magickal Mystery Tour Fails To Become Gold

Stephen Dalton at the Manchester International Festival finds Damon "the Martin Amis of Britpop" Albarn's musical about the life of Dr John Dee to be a flawed production. Perhaps he should call intended collaborator Alan Moore to help him fix it?

It is hard to pinpoint exactly when Damon Albarn convinced himself he could do no wrong. Perhaps it was when he won the Britpop wars by stealth and guile, using the brute commercial force of Oasis against them like a martial arts maestro. Then again, that victory was always assured anyway. History is generally written by broadsheet-reading Blur fans, not the red-top Gallagher massive.

Then Gorillaz went supernova, proving that with enough musical chemistry and marketing genius, lightning can strike twice. An audacious Chinese opera and a promiscuous, prolific string of collaborations followed. Most were interesting, many successful, all praised to the skies. Albarn turned from the Britpop Jude Law to the Martin Amis of modern music – a pop polymath and cultural icon, often divisive but impossible to ignore, a Serious Artist never troubled by niggling doubts about the limits of his talents.

But behind all the chattering-class hype and middlebrow fanfare, there is something lacking when Albarn launches his new “folk opera” Doctor Dee at the Manchester International Festival, an eight-show prelude to its longer run next year at the ENO in London as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Taking in mummers and Morris dancers, queens and magicians, ghosts and angels, Doctor Dee is a Pagan-punk pageant stretching from the necromantic dark ages to the New Romantic era. It is a dazzling visual spectacle, full of sound and fury, but signifying not quite enough. At times it feels like watching Blackadder directed by Peter Greenaway.


A collaboration between Albarn and the award-winning young opera director Rufus Norris, Doctor Dee is based on the colourful life of John Dee, a 16th century scientific genius who was a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare. It is also a celebration of England itself – hemmed in like a boar between arches, a kingdom of music and myth, magic and melancholy. In this it recalls the self-conscious Britishness of early Blur, but a closer match is Albarn’s short-lived side project The Good, The Bad and the Queen. The same drummer, veteran Afrobeat legend Tony Allen, worked on both projects.

For almost four centuries, Dee has proved a magnetic subject for biographers, novelists, dramatists and musicians. Even in his own era, he was the possible inspiration for Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the alchemist anti-hero of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. According to theatre folklore, at least two productions of Faustus had to be curtailed when there was found to be one extra devil onstage. Opening with a breathtaking coup de theatre – a live raven swooping in across the crowd – Doctor Dee certainly conjurs up a similar mood of magickal, spellbinding possibility.

More recently, Dee has appeared in novels by Peter Ackroyd, John Crowley and Michael Scott, plus Richard Byrne’s stage play Burn Your Bookes. Iron Maiden even wrote a song about him, ‘The Alchemist’, while These New Puritans claim Dee as a key influence on both their albums to date.

Dee was a devoutly religious man, a genius at mathematics and navigation, and a political advisor to two Queens. But he also dabbled in astrology, numerology and alchemy, spending much of his later life trying to communicate with angels and ghosts. These occult interests landed him in trouble more than once. In 1555, he was arrested and charged with sorcery and treason after casting horoscopes of Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth. The charges were later dropped, but decades later his paranormal passions led to a catastrophic crisis in his second marriage when his friend Edward Kelley, a self-styled psychic visionary, claimed he had received angelic orders to “share” Dee’s young wife Jane.

This political and marital strife features onstage in Doctor Dee, but only in a series of highly symbolic tableaux which are as confusing as they are dazzling. The stage presentation is dense with brilliant ideas, including mobile paper walls that denote scene changes, an onstage blizzard of book pages, and an extended aerial sequence in which a newly crowned Queen Elizabeth I soars high over the stage in a golden Lady Gaga-style mega-dress. There are flashes of modern dance, occult rituals, runic symbols, spells and incantations. It is half masque, and half black mass. Shame about the almost total lack of comprehensible plot or character.

The leather-jacketed, lightly bearded Albarn is present throughout the performance, backing into the limelight from his pseudo-modest perch high above the stage, playing with his band on a hydraulic platform vaguely reminiscent of a floating cricket pavilion. Paul Atkinson’s multi-level set deserves a special mention here.

Albarn’s musical score is a mix of downbeat folk-pop, mostly strummed by the singer on an acoustic guitar with his six-piece band, and more strident orchestral pieces sung by the cast, some of which sound like bustling homages to the singer’s sometime collaborator Michael Nyman. On a few numbers, band and orchestra combine. The best of the songs have the same fragile Syd Barrett-esque melancholy as Blur’s more wistful ballads. 

But Albarn’s godlike presence throughout the show is a distraction at times, especially when he ‘conducts’ the cast and orchestra below with his fists, inadvertently flashes his arse crack by standing up too quickly, and finally rises to his feet to stir up audience reaction during the final number. His passion for this project is unquestionable, but when he returns onstage to demand a third standing ovation, the sense of hubris is palpable. The ego has landed.

Doctor Dee was initially conceived as a further collaboration between Albarn and his Gorillaz co-founder Jamie Hewlett, plus the comic-book writer Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen and V For Vendetta. But the singer’s creative partners dropped out last year, with an exasperated Moore claiming he had begun writing but “nobody had done anything else.” All the same, the legendary cult author receives a credit for “inspiration” in the official programme.

Moore’s absence may help explain why Albarn’s magickal mystery tour feels so visually lush but dramatically weak. It is a sumptuous feast for the senses, no doubt, but intellectually obscure and emotionally remote. However, it is also reportedly a work in progress, still slouching towards London to be fully born. Is it too late to call Moore, I wonder, and save this fascinating experiment from becoming a grand folly? At the moment it feels like a magnificent haunted galleon, ghostly and deserted, drifting aimlessly on the high seas.

Maybe Albarn is happy with Doctor Dee’s mixed reviews and baffled reactions from Manchester so far, but he may find time in his famously crowded schedule for some tweaking and reworking. I hope so, because this commendably ambitious opera deserves a stronger narrative voice, as does John Dee himself. And after all, the Martin Amis of Britpop does not do failure.

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