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Thinking Inside Lepage's Box

Needles and Opium
by Robert Lepage
directed by Robert Lepage
Barbican Theatre

Needles and Opium centres on three different men: Miles Davis, Jean Cocteau and ‘Robert’, an actor who has recently gone through a painful breakup – three artists who have lost a love. The men are significantly different, separated by time, place, background and so on. Yet they are united by love, addiction and creativity. The parallels between which are powerfully presented in three intertwining stories of heartbreak and desolation.


It seems fitting that much of the show is set in various hotel rooms – places of displacement, solitude and loneliness. Each of them pops out of Carl Fillion’s remarkable set: a rotating cube which transforms before our eyes from hotel room to hotel room to recording studio to hypnotist’s office and others. Beds and lamps pop out of walls; performers slide down or walk round them as necessary. The use of film projections and lighting (Bruno Matte) here is exceptional, contributing to the creation of myriad fantastic locations within one fairly compact cube. A dreamlike, giddy space is created, mesmerising and gorgeous; yet the visual brilliance can sometimes distract from the substance of the story itself. It is an intricate show, tangled at some points. Therefore, it is easy to slip into simply gazing at the magic onstage rather than closely following the story. Additionally, I imagine those not familiar with Jean Cocteau and Miles Davis might not get as much from the show. It feels quite exclusive in that way.


Marc Labrèche is wonderful as Robert: effectively capturing the existential fears of the recently heartbroken as well as the irritability that can come with inner turmoil, particularly when expressing his frustration with pernickety producers in a recording studio. However, the scenes where Cocteau hovers against a starry backdrop feel a bit too mystical – a bit distancing and less human than the rest of the show. Wellesley Robertson III gives an equally good performance, especially as he remains voiceless throughout – disturbingly so.


Exquisite and emotive moments punctuate the piece: Miles Davis swapping his trumpet for heroin and stretching his arm out to meet the prick of a larger-than-life needle projection; Robert’s voice cracking as he describes Juliette Greco as the love of Miles Davis’ life. However, despite the relatively depressing subject matter, the show is sprinkled with lovely moments of humour, such as when Robert attempts to call his ex-lover from a hotel room, which is echoing with the noises of the couple making love next door.


Robert Lepage initially created the show in 1991 and it has been recreated in a new version. Having not seen the original production, I cannot comment on the ways in which it has or has not changed in the 25 years since it was originally staged, but I can say with confidence that it does not feel dated at all; quite the opposite. This is boundary pushing, genre-bending performance, which feels fresh and innovative. The central themes of love, loss and loneliness are still painfully relevant, here portrayed in an exceptionally beautiful production.


Marni Appleton

photos | ©Nicola-Frank Vachon

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