Needles and Opium

Robert Lepage
Ex Machina / Robert Lepage
The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth
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Internationally acclaimed for his original theatre craft, Robert Lepage has revived his acclaimed Needles and Opium and, wow, what a spectacle.

Created in 1991 following a painful break-up, the French Canadian explores situations which drive artists to create and the parallels between addiction to love and dependency on opiates. Lepage’s reworking deepens the narrative by bringing Miles Davis out of the shadows of film and onto the stage in person while his Jazz Age muse Juliette Gréco appears, albeit briefly.

Feted as ground-breaking theatre at the time, this revival ups the ante utilising state of the art technology.

Building on the tenuous coincidence of time and emotion, the play revolves around three men who have lost a love—iconic jazz trumpeter Davis (Wellesley Robertson III), French poet, writer, designer, playwright, artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau and Lepage himself (both superbly played by Olivier Normand).

Snippets of their stories intertwine, tugs at the heartstrings or amuse, as social difficulties for mixed race couples in 1949 New York forces Davis to give up his one love; lovelorn Cocteau travels from New York to Paris for the première of his ill-received film Eagle with Two Heads which compounds his misery while several decades later, newly single Lepage is staying in Greco’s favourite Parisian hotel room while recording the voice-over for a Davis documentary.

Davis turns to heroin, Cocteau to opium and Lepage to hypnotism to alleviate the pain.

But the wow factor is all about Carl Fillion’s set.

A suspended open cube rotates in the blackness providing shifting landscapes—mean hotel room, busy city street, late night cabaret club, pawnbroker and more—with openings and flaps slickly utilised. A superb meld of projection and actor reaches a pinnacle with Davis building his trumpet and prepping his opiate in stark silhouette before offering up his arm to a huge celluloid syringe.

As the cube rotates, so the actors’ effortless acrobatics emphasise the off-kilter moments in time with scenes played at 90 degrees or slipping to the ground as worlds spin and reality skews.

Add Jean-Sébastien Côté's evocative jazz soundscape, Lionel Arnould’s black and white images and Ex Machina’s production and this is ground-breaking theatre.

Karen Bussell