Saturday 23 June 2012
Damon Albarn interview: the magic and mystery of Dr Dee
Damon Albarn and Rufus Norris have let the subject of their opera Dr Dee - part of London 2012 Festival - become an obsession, says Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate.
Photo: Richard H Smith
The Diamond Jubilee river pageant was modelled on the aquatic comings and goings of Queen Elizabeth I, and the airwaves are humming with talk of the New Elizabethans. The Olympic opening ceremony will be based on the “isle of wonder” motif from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Clearly, the time is ripe for the emergence of a modern Prospero. Step forward, Damon Albarn. He is in for an interesting summer. Blur will headline the closing ceremony concert in Hyde Park, but in the meantime he is busy with English National Opera.
I have a rendezvous with him and the director and co-creator Rufus Norris. Not at the London Coliseum, but up the road at the British Museum, where we are in the midst of installing the summer show Shakespeare: Staging the World. They have taken time out from the rehearsal room to come and look at a piece of shiny black stone about the size of a table tennis bat with no handle.
Albarn — slight, quietly spoken, intensely thoughtful — tells me he was so excited at the prospect that he woke at four in the morning. Norris, equally excited, says he could “spend a year in the museum” and it still wouldn’t be enough. The co-creators of Dr Dee are about to lay their hands on the scrying glass through which John Dee, court magus to Queen Elizabeth I, conversed with angels.
Mathematician, astrologer, antiquary, political visionary and possible original for Shakespeare’s Prospero, Dr John Dee was one of the most extraordinary of the Old Elizabethans. He staged an undergraduate drama in which a giant scarab beetle carried an actor to the roof of the college hall as if by magic; he lectured on Euclid at prestigious universities across Europe; was offered the chair of mathematics in Paris before he was 25; became one of the first Englishmen to see the significance of the new astronomy of Copernicus; collected the greatest private library in the land; made serious attempts at the alchemical conversion of base metal into gold; invented the idea of the British Empire; perfected the art of navigation; reformed the calendar; pioneered the art of cryptography; and so impressed Queen Elizabeth that she went to his private house in Mortlake to watch him perform experiments.