Last Friday evening, after my afternoon shift at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition, I took the chance to go and see something a bit different, in the shape of English National Opera’s production of Dr Dee at the Coliseum. I hadn’t really known what to expect of this beforehand, actually, but needed to find a bit of distraction in London and was fortunately able to persuade my lovely friends Joao and Kim to come with me to try it out.
Dr Dee is based on the life of John Dee, the famous Elizabethan mathematician, astrologer, courtier, and spymaster. Written by Mr Damon Albarn, former lead singer of the popular beat combo Blur, it’s not exactly an opera but more of a renaissance-style pageant depicting the life of this mysterious character in a series of dramatic tableaux. Not being at all naturalistic in style it would have been quite difficult to follow what was going on without the programme notes, but each episode was brilliantly realised with dramatic staging, dancing and stunning visual effects. Rufus Norris was responsible for the overall direction of the piece. Hat’s off to him. I wasn’t really expecting the music to be so interesting, either; mixing pop vocals with orchestral music from the period could have been awful, but actually I warmed to it very quickly.
An influential polymath, Dee was, for a time, a trusted confidante of Elizabeth I and he was recruited by Sir Francis Walsingham to set up a network of informants and decipher Catholic codes in the build-up to the attempted invasion of England by the Spanish Armada. Dee is also purported to be the inspiration behind Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. What’s particularly interesting about him from an historical perspective is that lies at the crossroads between magic and science. A gifted mathematician, Dee developed an obsession for the occult after meeting a very dodgy character called Edward Kelly, who persuaded Dee that he could talk to angels in their own language with the help of a crystal ball, a technique known as scrying. Dee eventually went mad and was alienated not only from Elizabethan society but also from his own family. Had he lived at a slightly different time, he could well have ended up burned as a heretic. His story reminds us that the distinction between rationality and irrationality has not always been so clear. Alchemy and the occult could co-exist in many great minds alongside mathematics and empirical study so it should not surprise us that science and pseudoscience both seem able to thrive in modern culture.
The run of Dr Dee at ENO has now ended, but I’m definitely glad I plucked up the courage to go and see it. It’s a truly imaginative work and produced a memorable theatrical experience.Follow @telescoper