Robert Lepage never fails to visually stun Toronto audiences and successfully marry different artistic disciplines to create a magical piece of theatre. However, though the production values and transitions of his Needles and Opium flow into each other seamlessly, some elements of the story did not.
We follow three worlds, one of a heartbroken voice actor from Quebec in the present, and one of poet Jean Cocteau and jazz musician Miles Davis in 1949 when Cocteau and Davis were in each other’s cities; Cocteau in New York and Davis in Paris. Although the two artists never knew each other personally in real life, Lepage draws the parallels of their coincidental connections. Both artists struggled with drugs, Davis with heroin and Cocteau with opium, hence Needles and Opium. Both also created masterpieces and some of their most remembered works originated during their struggle with addiction. The mix of drugs, personal turmoil, and inspiration from another city, made for excellent art.
Our voice actor Robert, is in Paris to record a narration for a documentary about Miles Davis. He finds himself desperate for a cure for heartbreak and a deep lack of self-confidence. He invests in acupuncture and hypnotherapy, but drops them. In his downtrodden state he finds solace in the words of Cocteau and in the music of Davis.
Marc Labrèche plays the first two speaking roles while Wellesley Robertson III, who has a background in gymnastics and acrobatics, plays the non-speaking role of Miles Davis. Labreche plays Robert as a middle aged contemplative man with a dry sense of humour. Cocteau is portrayed in a surreal way with quirky staging and exaggerated movements. In many of the scenes Labreche’s character is talking to an invisible somebody in the room. It is always clear who it is, but over time, this conversation starts to become drawn out and boring. The threads between these three men are clear but not very strong.
The story moved slowly and was presented like a quiet, mellow film with sequences of movement to the sound of jazz. Lepage incorporates both Cocteau’s cinematic stylizations and Davis’s trumpet solos. The story is not told like a conventional narrative, we are shown different scenes that we must put together ourselves at the end. Even with this understanding, I still found the play moved almost as slowly as the set needed to move in order to be safe. The action took place almost entirely within a corner of a large floating rotating cube on an axis. Projections and fold out traps made for endless possibilities for locations. It is a truly complicated and impressive design that became the main character in this piece. The stage tricks superseded the thinly woven stories and is what we remember most when leaving the theatre.
Needles and Opium is an atmospheric, ideas play. We are transported to a surreal world with, literally, a skewed perspective on topics such as love, addiction, dependency, and how all of that comes through in one's art.