Gasps from an eager crowd as a single live crow flies from the rafters to centre stage.
Opening night of Dr Dee: The Opera at London Coliseum is going to be, in every sense of the word, magic.
Birthday presents don’t come better.
After the crow, a punk walks in from stage left and vanishes. Then a war-era gentleman in a bowler hat who also vanishes. Then a suffragette. Then a Napoleonic war nurse. Then a Hanoverian.
Damon Albarn is taking us backward through time via faces, via archetypes, via facets that have defined Englishness.
Until he finally lands on the Magician trump. Dee himself.
A life story that spans magic, astrology, alchemy, international espionage, imprisonment and ridicule was always going to require a certain amount of narrative conflation.
And in a lot of ways that’s the advantage of an operatic structure rather than simply a musical.
With an opera you locate the key points of emotionality and heighten them. A musical would require a more biographical format.
From a magical perspective, Albarn has masterfully located these points of emotionality, beginning with Dr Dee’s fatal flaw -one that will be familiar to many of us.
It strikes me that there is a similarity between writers and wizards that is often under-emphasised.
There is the obvious comparison that both magic and the creation of art are more or less the same act. Taking that to the next level down… somebody once said that a writer is someone for whom the act of writing is hard. It’s something painful that is nevertheless compelling. Normal people find it neither painful nor compelling.
And I think that a lot about magic, too.
Some people -you will no doubt know them- seem to have arrived into this incarnation with their camel humps full and ready for the journey.
They have no need to tinker, to summon, to prod… to really make fucking certain.
Our existential and ontological place in the scheme of Creation is self evident.
A wizard is someone for whom the act of temporarily inhabiting a meatsuit is hard and uncomfortable.
Is this suit really a rental? Then where’s the rental receipt? Show me.
Albarn has found that in Dee which was clear to magical people all along. He must know. Can you cast a natal chart for an empire? What do angels sound like? Where do they live?
Everything tumbles from this. The opera captures what you could call the inevitability of the good doctor’s fate -something we’ll return to.
From locating Dee’s flaw early on in the piece, Albarn then brutally explores how the “magician’s disease” wreaks merry havoc on his muggle life -something I’m totally sure has never happened to any of you even once. *Cough* Moving on. (Amongst the gayest thoughts you can possibly ever have: “wow, this opera really gets me.”)
At the beginning of his career, Walsingham -twinned with death as is evident by his plague doctor entourage- arrives and informs Dee that “the barren Queen is dead”.
The doctor then casts charts for Elizabeth I and her coronation -successfully.
He tells her she doesn’t need to marry Spain. He tells her that England can have the greatest naval empire in history. He tells her there will be a golden age.
These things come to pass. He’s got a wife, he’s got his research. Things are on the up for Dee.
And then, after some false clairvoyant starts, there is a knock on the door of his house in Mortlake.
A fateful knock.
It’s a certain Mister Edward Kelley. And he’s not what a magical audience might expect.
You see, Dr Dee was into middle age when a 28 year old Kelley appeared at his door.
He was obviously charming and handsome -con men typically are- but he’s been cast as a contemporaneous age to Dee… potentially older.
In fact, a resemblance to a certain, more recent, magico-historical figure from the exact same city is remarkable, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Once Kelley appears, you know that with the remorseless inevitability of a tabloid newspaper they will get to the swinging.
And it is a masterpiece of emotional portrayal. I have never seen anything like it in a live performance and I go to boatloads of theatre. (My partner is a playwright.)
Because it has always seemed to me there was two very separate emotional components to the angels alleged injunction that the boys should swap wives.
The first one is typically brushed over and the second one hasn’t ever got the hearing it deserves.
Component number one: Kelley drops this little truth bomb on Dee months into the Enochian work… it had been going so extremely well up until then!
The production captures the rock and the hard place that this puts Dee in.
If he calls poppycock on the vision and declares Kelley a scoundrel then the whole angelic work is a wash.
If he consents then someone else sleeps with his wife.
Albarn shows us that turmoil in a way that has the audience leaning forward like they’re watching a ghost movie. But -as we all know- it’s the “magician’s disease” that wins.
Dee wants it to be real too much to back out now.
Which brings us to the second emotional touchpoint that never gets any play. The moment when the doctor tells his wife.
Elizabethan society wasn’t exactly kind to women who were found guilty of (heck, even just accused of) adultery. Not kind at all in fact. She’s taking an extreme risk here. What if her husband changes his mind down the track?
So… let’s be clear. Once, a few centuries ago, an innocent woman was the victim of a sexual assault. Albarn knows this, Albarn shows us this.
Weirdly, opera is actually a preppy rapey medium when you think back over the classics. But this isn’t a divine goose having a go on some aristocrat bathing and singing in a river. There is no singing here. There is just the horror, the betrayal, the sheer gut-wrenching heartbreak of what this woman was asked to do.
It happened. And the audience knows that this is a thing that actually happened. In some ways it feels like a karmic vindication.
Through a delightfully brilliant dramatic device which will make magical folk almost squeal with delight, we are deposited in Dee’s old age.
Walsingham has grown to monstrous height -he towers over everyone- and the doctor has fallen out of favour in court. The Crown has no more need for his silly trickeries and the old man is mocked.
Here is the final piece of Dee the man that I have always kept close to my heart.
In no way was he high born.
He was a babe before the wolves of an initially very desperate court.
Walsingham positively embodies that terrifying English archetype of the manipulative, flattering puppet master. (That is certainly a shade you want to go and bother if your workplace turns toxic and you need a little necromantic assistance.)
They effectively used him until they didn’t need him. Courtly astrology was in… and then it was out. This then, is the ultimate end of the “magicians’ disease.” Like a Hollywood starlet, they like you when they need you. Don’t come around when they don’t. There is no cure for this disease. Ask Shirley Maclaine, ask Deepak Chopra… hell, ask the frikking Dalai Lama.
Damon Albarn rescues the doctor from where he was confined to history’s dustbin in a classist attack that has lasted centuries. As they are mocking him, almost broken, Dee sings back:
You call me Faust but my name is John Dee! My name is John Dee!
He is not their silly tragic figure, an anachronism in the court of the Golden Age, a caricature. There is a person under their scorn. He is a man. And he is singing at us in the audience that evening.
The production closes as it begins. A live crow flies down to centre stage and stays there. A second one follows it.
The audience gasps at the wrangling skill. The wizard gasps at the magic.
Albarn leaves me with a memory of another magical international journeyman who also; through extreme personal sacrifice; descends into himself and returns with a complete, miraculous alphabet for communicating with the spirit world.
Dee has become Odin. Dee has become Merlin. Dee has become Gandalf. And yet -in his own words- he remains John Dee.