James Ryan Gobuty
There are few figures in Canadian theatre as prolific as the great Robert Lepage; the English language premiere of Needles and Opium is a perfect example of why that is. Canadian Stage has come together with Lepage to update his landmark 1991 play for the 21st century. While “the original production was relatively low-tech”, the 2013 production is anything but, combining a myriad of stage innovations that will surely leave its mark on both Canadian and International theatre alike.
The show explores the cross cultural impact of Jean Cocteau (Marc Labrèche) and Miles Davis (Wellesley Robertson III) when they visit each other’s countries in the same year. In between these two titans, lies the shows protagonist Robert (Marc Labrèche), as he attempts to keep his life in motion after a tumultuous breakup. The stories of these three characters intersect and overlap in such a way as to make any sort of linear narrative unnecessary, as the content of the show progresses in such perfect harmony with the stage and technical design.
It’s not often, in this day and age, that one can say they’ve seen something thoroughly original on the stage (especially during a remounting of a 22 year old play), but Lepage lives up to his reputation in creating a landmark moment in the history of stagecraft. The set design is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Carlo Fillion defies all convention in building a rotating set, in the shape of a cube with three of the sides removed. The stage is so multifaceted that it can transform into a dozen different locations without any disjunction or loss of verisimilitude. The set is augmented by the incredible sound, lighting, and image design by Jean-Sébastien Côté, Bruno Matte, and Lionel Arnould respectively. The technological effects create an incredible exploration of space and movement. The use of cinematic projection, combined with the incredible perspectival changes that the rotating stage facilitates, creates a dialogue between film and theatre, and rather than pose the two as rivals, it demonstrates how much the two mediums have to offer one another.
Marc Labrèche, returning star from the French productions of the show, gives a magnificent performance. Oscillating between the camp recitations of Cocteau’s writing, and the conflicted but captivating Robert, Labrèche brings refreshing range to this production. Wellesley Robertson III plays the silent role of Miles Davis, an innovation of the 2013 remounting. Though Robertson doesn’t speak, he brings such an outstanding presence to the stage, combining great acting with an unbelievable quality of movement. The amount of acrobatics and unconventional stage play these actors demonstrate, is a testament to their skill.
Canadian Stage’s production of Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium is an overwhelming success. To miss seeing it is to miss being a part of history. In a time when theatre struggles to refresh itself and bring in a new sort of audience, productions like Needles and Opium must be embraced as they show us not only the stage’s continued ability to captivate, but also its incredible potential to innovate.
Needles and Opium is playing at the Bluma Appel Theatre until December 1. Tickets can be purchased online at canadianstage.com.