In a haunting encounter with the infinite void, Robert Lepage’s masterpiece pierces the skin of the psyche. Needles and Opium opens Canada’s Magnetic North Theatre Festival providing a hypnotizing entry into the extraordinary potentials of festival theatre. An established centerpiece on the international circuit, Lepage’s 2013 remount of the 1989 play is a reminder to the festival audience of Canadian artists’ unique ability to integrate individual yet universal experiences into truly transformative and tourable theatre.  Needles and Opium creates a spectacular journey through the pains and pleasures of love and addiction, where the live poetry of performance manages to transcend even the play’s own technical majesty.

Needles and Opium spins together three transatlantic quests to escape the spiritual apocalypse of heartbreak. Quebecois legend Marc Labrèche stars in double roles of celebrated French poet Jean Cocteau, and fictive Québécois actor Robert. The first exodus of the play concerns Cocteau flying from New York to Paris in 1949. Retreating from a vision of a future neither he or humanity may be ready for, Cocteau composes his “A Letter to Americans”. Direct excerpts of this work frame Robert’s story, a rattling depiction of an artist finding himself unraveling between worlds in Paris 1989, grasping for an ex-lover in New York who wants nothing to do with him. Paralyzed by anguish, Robert struggles to complete his job of narrating a biopic on jazz singer Juliette Greco. Enter the needles and opium of the piece, as the story of the descent into heroin addiction of Greco’s paramour, American trumpeter Miles Davis, manifests onstage. This third narrative is entirely non-verbal, layering the emotive acrobatics of actor Wellesley Robertson III on top of recordings of Davis’s trumpet playing.  The stories of these three men tumble deftly around one another, each character’s sorrow finding emotional ghosts in the others.

It is of great credit to Labrèche and Robertson’s resounding stage presence, and the intricate beauty of Lepage’s script, that both narrative and character hold their own against a backdrop that re-defines spectacular. The entire play takes place on a grandiose rotating cube (set by Carl Fillion, with dynamic projection design by Lionel Arnold), a stage-within-a-stage that creates a material space where the rules of physics become suspended. In an extended sequence as much three-dimensional film montage as circus act, Davis physically slides in and out of time and space; even gravity loses power in the face of addiction and agony.

However the true magic of the piece is when the world stops turning. In the longest continuous scene of the play, Robert explains to an offstage hypnotist his need for escape from an identity in existential decay.  In this moment the cube presents a realistic office setting – yet the framing spotlight causes the projection of the office floor to disappear. Robert’s pain literally tears holes in his reality. This is the subtle beauty of Needles and Opium: the shadows of the unspeakable surround each moment of technical magic. Lepage’s staging never presumes to control the imagination with its potentially overwhelming mechanical accomplishment. Instead, it slowly stimulates fumes of truth and tragedy the heart can’t help but chase after.

Needles and Opium

An Ex Machina Production

by Kelly Richmond


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