Posts Tagged ‘Paul Hilton’

Dr Dee, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, June 2012

27 June, 2012

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. So says Hamlet in the words of Shakespeare, who died eight years after that extraordinary Englishman, John Dee (1527–1608), whom he may have used as a model for Prospero in The Tempest.

All images ENO/ Richard Hubert Smith

Part of the inspiration for this opera, according to Adrian Mourby’s essay in the programme, was the question of who was the greatest dead Englishman, and the answer was John Dee. Mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, alchemist and polymath, he was a sort of Faust-like character who wanted to go beyond human knowledge and communicate with angels. This led to his downfall because he came to trust the clever, flamboyant, scheming liar Edward Kelley, who would help him uncover the Enochian language of heaven. Kelley became Dee’s regular scryer (medium and crystal gazer), inveigled his way into the household and claimed that an angel commanded that he sleep with Dee’s wife.

Kelley, Dee’s wife, and Dee blindfolded

Dee had earlier been recruited by Francis Walsingham, head of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in particular to advise on an auspicious date for the coronation of the new queen, Elizabeth. But Kelley was seriously distrusted by those around Walsingham, and Dee’s influence at court waned. He died in straitened circumstances, and this opera starts and ends with the bedridden Dee being cared for by his daughter, Katherine.

Dee dies attended by his daughter

In the meantime we are treated to ingenious theatrical effects that convey the image of a man of tireless energy exploring the secrets of nature. Dee was well-known on the continent of Europe as an expert of Euclid, and the proof he gives on stage is just like those found in the Hellenistic world. In Euclidean geometry Dee was in touch with the ultimate, its theorems as valid now as they ever were, but not so with astronomy. We are treated to a wonderful view of the moon and planets forming geometric patterns as they revolve around the earth, a geocentric view of the universe propounded by Ptolemy in his famous Almagest. This was the basis for all astronomy until the seventeenth century when use of the telescope finally convinced Galileo and others that the planets had moons and orbited the sun. Yet Dee himself, and Walsingham, may have known of the telescope earlier, since a sixteenth century English design existed that would have been a closely guarded secret for the Navy Royal.

John Dee, polymath extraordinary

Dee’s books we see by the hundreds, and books are opened out as concertinas that grow in size and serve as screens. Early in the second half, people and objects appear from behind these screens as they are dragged across stage, and then another screen converts them into line drawings that decompose before our eyes. These stunning visual effects are very clever.

For most of the first half, all is well, with Paul Hilton entirely convincing as John Dee, Anna Dennis as his daughter Katherine, Clemmie Sveaas as Dee’s young wife Jane, and Steven Page giving a fine portrayal of Walsingham. But then counter-tenor Christopher Robson appears as Kelley, and Dee pursues a path towards his Faust-like error. Walsingham grows in size and the human ravens of his entourage take on a more menacing mien. Towards the end real ravens appear, flying across the auditorium and returning obediently to the upper level of the stage.

That upper level is where the orchestra sat for most of the opera, a reminder if any were needed of the habit in Elizabethan theatre of having the musicians at a higher level. Costumes are Elizabethan, and this extraordinary creation by Damon Albarn and director Rufus Norris is a sight not to be missed. The music by Damon Albarn, conducted and supervised by Stephen Higgins, mixes a twenty-first century popular style with musical ideas from the sixteenth and seventeenth century. In putting on this imaginative show the ENO is offering opera to a wide audience, and my only complaint is that they have abandoned their usual practice of providing surtitles. It was not always easy to understand the words, particularly the utterances of Edward Kelley, but the synopsis in the programme expressed everything with excellent clarity — so be sure to buy a programme.

Performances continue until July 7 — for details click here.

Doctor Faustus, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London, June 2011

24 June, 2011

“For vain pleasure of four-and-twenty years hath Faustus lost eternal joy and felicity. I writ them a bill with mine own blood. The date is expired, the time will come, and he will fetch me”. Thus speaks Faust in the final scene. The scholars seek to save him, but the clock strikes eleven and he has but one hour to live before being carried off by the fiends of hell.

Arthur Darvill as Mephistopheles, all photos by Keith Pattison

Yet in those four-and-twenty years there were good times a-plenty, spent with Mephistopheles his comrade in magic and trickery. Eventually Faust conjures up Helen of Troy to save him, “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium? Sweet Helen make me immortal with a kiss”.

Good angel, bad angel and Faust

The famous phrase that starts this plea for life eternal is Christopher Marlowe’s. He is the author of this play that mixes comedy with scenes of serious intent, as when we see the torture of Giordano Bruno, whose bloodied body is punched on stage, before one of his eyes is gouged out. This is the Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer who went beyond the Copernican view of the solar system to see the earth as just one inhabited planet in a mighty universe, and was badly mauled by the Church of Rome. His treatment served as a useful warning to Galileo who felt compelled to recant his scientific views in 1632, knowing full well that Bruno had been burned at the stake in the year 1600. Galileo was born the same year as Christopher Marlowe (1564), but Marlowe died in 1593, infamously killed in a brawl. Yet here in this play, possibly performed by the Lord Admiral’s Men in 1588, we see the beginning of the end for Bruno. And while Marlowe shows us a great scholar being abused on stage, he also allows that great fictional scholar, Faust to make a fool of the Pope. He and Mephistopheles impersonate some visiting cardinals, creating enormous confusion, and with Mephistopheles’ help Faust becomes invisible so as to play games with the Pope and his henchmen.

Wagner stands by as Faust opens the magical book

Then there are the magical transformations, where people are turned into stags, apes and dogs — all wittily done, and the appearance of the Seven Deadly Sins is an occasion for enormous fun. At one point, Faust is decapitated by someone wielding a sword, yet he suddenly reconnects his head, terrifying his opponents. This production by Matthew Dunster delivers an array of magical effects, helped by Paul Wills’s excellent designs. There are giant figures from hell, along with ordinary folk caught up in the action, and I loved the costumes for this Rabelaisian world of characters, including a good angel, a bad angel, Lucifer the prince of hell, the Pope, cardinals, and heaps more.

Richard Clews as Dick with monsters from hell

Paul Hilton as Doctor Faustus and Arthur Darvill as Mephistopheles were suitably energetic and well matched, even to the extent of looking almost identical, and in the less major parts I liked Felix Scott as Faust’s servant, Wagner, and Pearce Quigley’s comic timing as Robin. The diction was good, though when the delightful looking Beatriz Romilly first rushed on stage as the good angel, I understood not a word she was saying, but things warmed up later and the clarity of speech was fine, at least from my seat in the middle balcony. As for the crowd in the standing area, they looked to be in rapt attention at this entertainment, watching a sparkling performance of Christopher Marlowe’s most well-known play for a mere five pounds. Better value cannot be had in London.

Performances continue until October 2 — for details click here.