Robert Lepage is arguably Canada’s best ever playwright. If you have any doubts about this claim, then I encourage you to see Needles and Opium, the stunningly brilliant work by the Quebec-born artist that is running at the National Arts Centre until June 6 as part of the Magnetic North Theatre Festival.
Having originally debuted during the NAC’s French theatre’s 1991-92 season, the rewrite of this two-decade-old masterpiece is extraordinary. From its brilliant set to impressive acting to the great translation by Jenny Montgomery, this performance is nothing short of fantastic.
To begin with the setting is exceptional. Rather than using the normal stage, the performance occurs in a cube that is suspended a few feet off the ground. With three walls closed and the other three open, the cube slowly rotates throughout the show to mark different scenes.
As video images are flashed onto the cube, a hotel room turns into a night club that becomes a recording studio that is transformed into a bustling street. Floors morph into walls, and ceilings turn into floors. The visual effects are mesmerising.
Then there is the plot, which combines three different stories. There is Jean Cocteau, the famous French filmmaker and writer, who has just returned from a visit to New York in 1949. While reading excerpts from his work A Letter to Americans, Cocteau – who is addicted to opium – both praises and criticises U.S. culture. In one memorable passage, he complains how American artists are not allowed to take chances in art, unless it’s in a dream sequence because if it’s in a dream then it can’t be real.
The second story revolves around the legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who visits Paris in 1949 and falls in love with French singer Juliette Gréco. The visit is a revelation for the musician, who feels like he is being treated as a human being for the first time in his life. However, unwilling to deal with the racial segregation back in the U.S., he leaves Greco behind in France when he decides to go back home. Heartbroken he becomes a heroin addict.
The third story involves a Quebec actor named Robert who is in Paris in 1989 to do a voiceover for a documentary about Davis’ visit to Paris in 1949. Suffering from his own heartbreak due to a broken romance, Robert has his own painful “withdrawal” that is contrasted with Davis’ heroin addiction and Cocteau’s opium dependence.
As these three stories overlap, the play is enhanced by Davis’ famous jazz music, as well as footage from black-and-white films that are ingeniously incorporated into the production.
The acting by the two actors, meanwhile, is quite strong. Marc Labrèche does a solid job in the roles of Robert and Cocteau, while Wellesley Robertson III – who does not speak throughout the play – is quite good as Davis.
From beginning to end this play is wonderful.
Needles and Opium is running at the NAC until June 6 as part of the Magnetic North Theatre Festival. Tickets start at $32.