Needles and Opium: drugs, creativity and self fulfillment

Needles and Opium
Robert Lepage and Ex Machina
New Zealand Festival
Opera House, Wellington
Until February 24

All Robert Lepages' productions have at their core a quest for personal fulfillment, a striving to comprehend the human condition and attempts to understand the creative process.  All these themes are in Needles and Opium his latest work to be seen at the New Zealand Festival.

The play was originally conceived twenty years ago and like all his other shows had never been updated. However for this work actor and collaborator Marc Labreche who performed in the original work, convinced Lepage of the viability of a new take on the show.

Using parallel and intersecting stories of the French playwright and film maker Jean Cocteau, the American jazz musician Miles Davis and a Canadian voice-over artist Lepage constructs a convoluted narrative relating mainly to the two artists but also the French Canadian and his more mundane life

Lepage touches on a whole raft of topics including Cocteau’s reaction to his time in America and Miles Davis’ impact on the French art scene and his drug addiction.

He explores political and social themes, psychological obsessions and the way their addictions and obsessions can be given an outlet through art. Much of the play deals with issues of creativity, the way that ideas, either drug induced or otherwise, evolve and take form in words or music. Like the two main characters who float through the surreal sets, ideas float through the play suddenly appearing then taking flight or disappearing..

Between the poetic outpourings of Cocteau (Labreche) and the jazz renditions of Miles Davis (Wellesley Robertson III) there are the personal problems and day-to-day events in the life of the French Canadian who has to endure the difficulties of making international phone calls from back street hotels, listening to lovemaking from the room next door and being instructed on French pronunciation by an American film producer.

The scenes and dialogue continually shift from the poetic and philosophical to the mundane with the mundane seeming to take on a philosophical  character.

While the dialogue is mesmerizing it is the set which manages to replicate something of the drug induced feelings of euphoria as it changes, tilts and rotates. Technological wizardry is used to create the surreal spaces which morph from one to another in dream-like sequences.

Marc Labreche as Cocteau and the French Canadian gives an extraordinary performance which is by turns dramatic and comic, sometimes managing to combine the two.

Wellesley Robertson III as Miles Davis gives an athletic performance and while he never speaks the sound of the horn and his great timing help provide a real sense of the musical genius.

Both of them manage to do all their acting and playing, seemingly oblivious of their contorting bodies and being strapped into harnesses.

The play may have been written more than twenty years ago but it has a freshness and energy which makes it still relevant today.

John Daly-Peoples attended the New Zealand Festival thanks to The New Zealand Festival and Quality Hotels


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