Barbican Theatre, London (****)
Looking at the list of co-producers for Robert Lepage’s revival of his 1991/92 Needles and Opium, it’s a testimony to the impact he’s made on world theatre over the past three decades.
It’s an influence, it could be argued, to be seen in many European directors working today, in Simon McBurney’s Complicite and in Katie Mitchell where cinematic and video devices create shifting perspectives married to an intense theatricality.
Lepage’s Needles and Opium, one of his earliest pieces came on the back, he tells us, of a difficult period in his personal life, a particularly painful breakup.
There’s always been something of an autobiographical element to Lepage’s work; it’s one, despite all the technological gadgetry he employs, that gives his shows such appeal. That and the wit with which he treats his personal life.
Watch here how, before skype or social media, he mediates an excruciating phone conversation, stranded in a hotel bedroom in Paris with his ex-lover in New York and sandwiches it between snippets of ordinary conversation with the hotel’s receptionist patiently trying to spell out names and numbers.
Acutely observed and very human, that and a passage in a recording studio in which he breaks down, sets us up brilliantly for the more esoteric passages in which Jean Cocteau suspended between two continents – France and the US – admonishes Americans in his Letter to Americans, written on the way back to France after a visit to New York, to take more risks, and juxtaposes it against Miles Davis encountering new worlds and Juliette Greco in Paris.
Davis’s iconic trumpet playing haunts Lepage’s exploration of memory, loss, and the descent into hell that a break-up of a love relationship can induce, as does the rubric cube of a set that turns and turns about, imposing giddying slopes and angles on Marc Labrèche (as both `Robert’ and Cocteau) and Wellesley Robertson’s Davis.
Visual sleights of hand abound as characters slither away into darkness, physical embodiments of being `on the edge’ and disorientated by circumstances.
Less clear in its Orpheus/artistic creativity-under-pressure narrative than, say, The Dragon’s Trilogy (1985, still one of my abiding favourites of all time), the great conjuror’s best moments still provide wonder and a melancholic kind of beauty in equal measure.
Needles and Opium
By Robert Lepage
English translation by Jenny Montgomery
Performed in English and French with English surtitles
Wellesley Robertson III
Director: Robert Lepage
Assistant Director: Normand Bissonnette
Set Designer: Carl Fillion
Props Designer: Claudia Gendreau
Music and Sound Designer: Jean-Sébastien Côté
Lighting Designer: Bruno Matt
Costume Designer: François St-Aubin
Images Designer: Lionel Arnould
Automation Consultant: Tobie Horswill
Video Consultant: Catherine Guay
Trumpet played by Craig L Pederson
Acrobatics consultants: Geneviève Bérubé, Yves Gagnon, Jean Sébastien Fortin, Jean-François Feber
The production contains excerpts from Jean Cocteau’s Letter to the Americans and Opium, the Diary of a Cure.
Presented by the Barbican
Produced by Ex Machina
Co-produced by the Barbican, Théâtre du Trident, Québec, Canadian Stage, Toronto, Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, Montréal, Adelaide Festival, New Zealand Festiva. Le Grant T, théâtre de Loire-Atlantique, Les Quinconces-Lespal, scène conventionnée, theatres du Mans, Célestins, Théâtre de Lyon, Le Volcan, Scène nationale du Havre, Festival do Otoño a Primavera, Madrid, ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage, Boston, NAC English Theatre with le Théâtre français du CNA and the Magnetic North Theatre Festival LG Arts Center, Seoul, setagaya Public Theatre, Tokyo, La Comédie de Clermont-Ferrand, scène nationale.
Ex Machina is funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, Quebec’s Arts and Literature Council and the City of Quebec.
World premiere of this production at Théâtre du Trident, Québec, Sept 17, 2013
First perf at the Barbican Theatre, London, July 7, 2016