Needles and Opium: a wondrous, magical mystery ride

Reviewed by Patrick Langston

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Photo. Courtesy NAC

It’s tempting to think it was inspired by, if not something even stronger, one of those LSD-laced sugar cubes.

The huge cube in which Quebec playwright Robert Lepage’s fascinating Needles and Opium takes place is for sure laced with the phantasmagorical. Elevated a few feet above the stage with three of its sides walled and three open, it slowly rotates, walls becoming ceilings becoming floors and both time and place proving elastic as three interconnected stories flow into each other.

In one story, American jazz trumpeter Miles Davis visits Paris for a music festival in 1949 and falls in love with French chanteuse Juliette Greco. Unwilling to bring the white Greco back to a segregated U.S, he returns to New York City without her and, despairing, falls into heroin addiction.

In another strand, French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, hooked on opium, visits New York City, also in 1949.

The third, which takes place in 1989, finds an unconfident Quebec actor named Robert, in withdrawal from a love affair, in Paris to do the voiceover for a film about Davis’s visit to that city four decades earlier.

To this multi-layered tale is added music by Davis, snippets of old black and white film (in one scene the “real-life” Davis almost gets mowed down by a cab as he attempts to cross a filmed New York street), and fantastical episodes in which the ever-arch Cocteau hangs suspended in mid-air quoting from his A Letter to Americans, a critique of U.S. culture.

The play, translated by Jenny Montgomery and directed by the playwright, is a rewrite of the show which debuted in the NAC French theatre’s 1991-92 season as Les Aiguilles et l’opium (Lepage was artistic director of the NAC’s French theatre at the time and performed in the original one-person show). The new show is technically astounding, often very funny, and, this being Lepage, theatrical as all get out.

Thanks to mostly strong performances by Marc Labrèche (Robert and Cocteau) and Wellesley Robertson III (Davis, who never speaks), it’s also a provocative exploration of loneliness and the connection between creativity and existential pain. Set designer Carl Fillion’s spinning cube, despite some brief technical difficulties in a Wednesday night preview, is more than just a neat technical trick: it’s a visual metaphor, in a play rich with them, for everything from the severe spiritual disorientation of the three characters to the need to escape artistic boxes if creativity is to thrive.

There’s a delightful playfulness at work here. At one point, Cocteau, in Alice in Wonderland-like fashion, pops out of a city window to address us. Later, Robert weaves a funny summary of post-1950 Quebec history into a visit to a hypnotherapist. “One has only to look at the last four decades of our political history to realize it’s like a bad play,” he tells the therapist in a sly bit of meta-theatre that manages to suggest, quite rightly, that what we’re watching is anything but bad theatre. That playfulness gives the show, which is more the theatre of concept, intellect and technology than of emotion, the balance and lightness it needs.

It also points up one of the play’s weaknesses: Robert, at his snarky best in the therapist’s office, can be a boring drip when going on about his broken heart. Whatever Lepage’s intentions in giving us Robert-the-banal, he gives us too much of him.

More serious is Cocteau. Speaking in an overly rich French-from-France accent, the otherwise estimable Labrèche is too often indecipherable. It’s a problem that was noted by Toronto reviewers when the show played there in 2013, so why didn’t Lepage address it?

These issues aside, Needles and Opium makes for a wondrous, magical mystery ride to places only Lepage would travel.

Continues until June 6. Tickets: NAC box office and Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca

Needles and Opium

An Ex Machina production (co-presentation of NAC English Theatre, Le Théatre Français du CNA and Magnetic North Theatre Festival)

Reviewed Thursday (preview performance)


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