James Ryan Gobuty
It was a little over a year ago when I had the pleasure of seeing Needles and Opium for the first time, and it was an eye-opening experience that showed me how far the medium of theatre can be pushed. Now, in 2015, the production is still as mind blowing as it was the first time I saw it, and it surely secures its place as a milestone in the history of Canadian theatre.
Needles and Opium is a total re-imagining of a production that the always innovative Robert Lepage had mounted in the 1990s. This production, brought into the 21st Century with its use of incredible technological effects, wholly embraces an approach to theatre that accepts that the future of stagecraft is an interdisciplinary affair.
Needles and Opium interweaves three different narratives—that of the famous French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau (Marc Labrèche) during his visit to the United States, that of the renowned jazz musician Miles Davis (Wellesley Robertson III) and his time spent in France, and that of a voice actor called Robert (also played by Labrèche), who is a Canadian working in Paris. Through these different tales the play explores the ways in which our identities form and crumble through the cycles of love and loss.
In a show like this, the set in and of itself is a pivotal character. Director Robert Lepage, alongside set designer Carl Fillion, lighting designer Bruno Matte, and images designer Lionel Arnould, create a stage world that lives, breathes and births the characters that inhabit it.
The stage consists of a cube that has had three sides removed to expose the inside. As the set rotates, it takes on multitudinous forms through the use of cinematic projections and latch door style set pieces, moving seamlessly from Paris, to New York, and even into the far reaches of space. The stage of Needles and Opium is a remarkable piece of art on its own, and the protean universe it creates is in many ways the most breathtaking part of the entire show.
The acting calibre in the play is also beyond reproach. Marc Labrèche, who starred in the original run of Needles and Opium, shows his incredible range as he switches between the ostentatious Cocteau and the meek Robert. Wellesley Robertson III is also a treat to marvel at as he portrays the arc of Miles Davis entirely through his embodiment, as the character never speaks, and so must rely heavily on the precise timing of the acting and the masterful sound design of Jean-Sébastien Côté.
It should be noted that the performances of both actors is made even more amazing by the acrobatics they perform upon the rotating set; one is truly witnessing the mastery of the craft of acting when the actors' performances are unfazed whist being hoisted into the air and pushed through walls.
You would be hard-pressed to find a play quite like Needles and Opium, not only for its array of innovations, but also for its sheer success in execution. It is surely one of the greatest testaments to Canadian art by some of Canada’s greatest artists. This show is not to be missed.
Needles and Opium is playing at the Bluma Appel Theatre until May 10. Tickets can be purchased online at canadianstage.com.
photo credit: Nicola Frank Vachon