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Manchester International Festival: Dr Dee

Published Wednesday 6 July 2011 at 11:03 by Ben East

Dr Dee, for those who don’t know, was a mathematician, philosopher, geographer, astrologer and spiritual advisor to Elizabeth I, no less. He essentially invented the notion of the British Empire.

A scene from Dr Dee at the Palace Theatre, Manchester

A scene from Dr Dee at the Palace Theatre, Manchester Photo: Howard Barlow

It pays to make some effort to find out such biographical details before Damon Albarn strums one of his melancholic chords, because his new production, subtitled An English Opera, barely makes any effort to piece Dee’s remarkably full life together into a coherent narrative.

Instead, we’re left with a succession of quite beautiful scenes, both visually and musically, which hardly hang together but still, somehow, work as a breathtaking spectacle. Huge credit must go to set designer Stephen Higgins for this. His screens of corrugated paper are a neat device which work as projections, organic set changes and nods to Dee’s love of books.

And yet, perhaps too often, the eye wanders to Albarn, who somewhat off-puttingly peers down on proceedings from above, playing guitar, singing and mock-conducting.

For all the drama on stage - and there is plenty of it - the decision to have the lead character almost mute is a mistake. From his body language alone, Bertie Cavell looks like he would be an intriguing Dee, but because we never really get the chance to know him, it’s impossible to lament his downfall.

This is a shame really, because Albarn and Norris have created a piece which is rich in invention, imagery and imagination. The combination of the BBC Philharmonic and Albarn’s eclectic band works wonderfully. It just lacks a human heart - which could easily be rectified by the time it helps launch the London 2012 Festival next year.

Production information

Palace, Manchester, July 1-9

Damon Albarn, Rufus Norris
Rufus Norris
Manchester International Festival, ENO
Bertie Cavell, Christopher Robson, Anna Dennis, Melanie Pappenheim, Damon Albarn
Running time:
1hr 55mins

Production information displayed was believed correct at time of review. Information may change over the run of the show.

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Run sheet

King's Head, Islington London
January 24-February 15 2014