I don’t know what it is that has so many mid-career Canadian theatre artists looking back over their shoulders lately, but none has revisited their work from two decades ago of late as poignantly and gorgeously as Robert Lepage in Needles and Opium. What a technological triumph this new version of his 1989 creation is – and any Torontonians with eyes and ears and hearts should catch it this week before it sails off for Australia and New Zealand.
Marc Labrèche, a performer capable of both extremely subtle emoting and high-flying theatrics, stars as an unnamed Québécois actor who flies to Paris in 1989 to record the voice-over for a documentary on trumpeter Miles Davis’s visit to the same city 40 years earlier. The actor’s recent breakup with a lover, however, is impairing his ability to do his job – his voice keeps cracking each time he tries to record a passage about Davis’s affair with the French singer Juliette Gréco.
Meanwhile, Wellesley Robertson II plays Davis in the Paris of 1949, where the African-American jazz musician is surprised to find himself accepted among intellectuals and artists. We watch him as he falls in love with Gréco in a cleverly choreographed sequence where he plays a duet with her silhouette through a window. In Lepage’s account, Davis finds it too difficult to imagine bringing her back to segregated United States, however – and, upon his return to New York, he falls into a deep depression.
While Labrèche’s character tries to get over his heartbreak with hypnosis and acupuncture, Davis tries to erase his with heroin. It’s the hypnotic gravity-defying ballet depicting Davis’s descent into drugs that lifts Needles and Opium a notch above much of Lepage’s recent work. Carl Fillion has here given a whole new meaning to “box set”, designed a rotating cube that the play takes place in and on and under. It’s like an MC Escher painting come to life, transforming from one hotel room to another as it spins; with the help of perfectly pinpointed projections, it tumbles us from the boulevards of Paris to the back alleys of New York.
Robertson – attached to visible wires that only accentuate his acrobatics – sails from one wall to another, or tumbles through a door only to land in another era. His Davis is nearly hit by cars, careens from rooftop to pawn shop, then ends up slinking to the projects to purchase heroin – all accompanied by the trippy soundtrack he would later improvise for the 1958 Louis Malle film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows). Astounding.
Robertson isn’t the only actor to show off his circus skills here, though. In addition to the unnamed Québecois character, Labrèche also floats up into the sky to channel the playful spirit of French playwright and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, who happened to travel to New York the same year that Davis travelled to Paris. Excerpts from his A Letter to Americans and Opium, the Diary of a Cure are interspersed as a commentary on the two other tragic transatlantic tales. (My only quibble: Labrèche, otherwise brilliantly bilingual, could soften Cocteau’s accent to make his words a little more understandable in English.)
The work of Cocteau has also influenced the structure of the play – in many one-sided dialogues, Lepage references La Voix humaine, the French playwright’s 1930 groundbreaking play that dramatized a woman’s telephone call to her leaving lover. (Yes, loneliness existed even in the age of landlines.)
Onstage technology has certainly advanced since then – and there are so many multisensory marvels here. It’s a testament to the sophistication of Jean-Sébastien Côté’s sound design that at multiple moments I was convinced Robertson was actually playing the trumpet. Also impressive are the way both actors blend together with real film footage of a Davis recording session.
But it’s Lepage’s examination of the human heart, his ability to turn heartbreak into a visual and aural metaphors that resonate that is most affecting. As another Quebec-bred poet put it around the same time as Needles and Opium’s first premiered in its first incarnation, “I’ve got you like a habit, I’ll never get enough. There ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure for love.”
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