Needles and Opium
Ex Machina and Robert Lepage
New Zealand Festival, Wellington
Opera House, Wellington
One of the most anticipated theatrical works at next year's New Zealand Festival will be Robert Legage’s new updated work Needles and Opium. Originally written 20 years ago, it has been given a fresh storyline and new audiovisual material.
The work tells of the French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau travelling by plane back to France from New York where his film L’Aigle à deux têtes (The Eagle has Two Heads) has just premiered. He is writing his Lettre aux Américains, in which he describes the fascination and disillusionment of his encounter with America.
At the same time, Miles Davis is visiting Paris for the first time, bringing bebop with him to Europe. Parisian jazz fans are ecstatic and Cocteau meets the bohemian singer Juliette Greco.
Their stories are recounted in parallel with the longings of a heartbroken Québécois theatre artist staying in Jean-Paul Sartre’s old room at the Hotel La Louisiane in Paris, trying to forget his former lover.
His emotional torments echo Cocteau’s dependence on opium and that of Davis on heroin. There begins a spectacular withdrawal experience where the words and drawings of the poets and the notes of the jazzman accompany his leap into nothingness, the desperate effort of a man looking inward in order to conquer the pain and liberate himself from his love addiction.
Through highly visual staging, which is as much magic as it is theatre, Robert Lepage uses audiovisual wizardry, architectural projection, new imagery and an acrobat onstage, all complementing Cocteau’s words and Marc Labrèche’s sensitive and ingenious performance as the Québécois and Cocteau. The result is a production with mesmerising effects.
Tom Greally, general manger at Weta Digital, which is partnering Needles and Opium at the festival, has said that the “energy and passion” of Robert Lepage's work immediately intrigued Weta Digitial.
"It seemed fitting to align ourselves with an artist who intimately understands how to embrace technology as a way to enhance the art of storytelling," Greally says.
Rapid changes in technology has allowed Lepage to explore visual possibilities on the stage that weren’t available to him 20 years ago, and his theatre company Ex Machina has said that under his unique direction, with stand-out performances by Marc Labrèche (who also starred in the original version) and Wellesley Robertson III, Needles and Opium has become “as much magic as it is theatre.”
Canadian theatre critics have expressed delight with Needles and Opium in recent weeks with reviewer Wayne Leung writing “the show is a sensuous visual and aural experience; the strains of Miles Davis infused throughout the show and the grainy images projected onto the set often lend the production something close to a noir feel…Needles and Opium was beautiful, poetic and cinematic."