Needles and Opium at the Barbican
“What emerges from my visit to New York? A cry of anguish and love.” Jean Cocteau’s transatlantic lament echoes across time and space in this new staging of Needles and Opium – 20 years after its original production, which starred the writer and director, Robert Lepage, himself.
In 1989, French-Canadian actor Robert (Marc Labrèche) arrives in Paris to record the narration for a documentary about the famous love affair between the beautiful Juliette Greco and legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Robert is struggling with his own heartache, missing a disinterested lover who is miles away. He cuts a lonely figure, and a sad desperation creeps into his voice in a late-night phone call, and later, in a clever scene where he repeatedly tries to narrate the Pulitzer prize-winning words of the documentary. He’s overcome with emotion, but Labrèche doesn’t allow the heartbreak to become cloying – the script is surprisingly funny, and he brings the laughs with an understated, wry delivery.
Needles and Opium was inspired by Lepage’s discovery that existentialist poet and artist Jean Cocteau and Davis both crossed the Atlantic for the first time in 1949. Just as Cocteau was discovering the wonder and disillusionment of a racially segregated New York, Davis was revelling in a new sense of freedom in bohemian Paris. Robert’s more modern torment echoes the heartbreak and addiction of these two cultural giants: after the death of his young lover and poet, Raymond Radiguet, Cocteau turned to opium, and Davis was pushed into a heroin addiction when the racial prejudices of America prevented him and Juliette from being together.
These three intertwining stories are ingeniously played out within the confines of a giant, rotating cube (designed by Carl Fillion) that is suspended in mid-air. As it swivels, the actors – often attached to harnesses – glide in and out, disappearing and re-emerging as we travel with them between characters, stories and continents. Created by Lepage’s theatre company, Ex Machina, Needles and Opium gives equal weight to the set, the sound and the performances. Jean-Sebastien Cote’s jazzy soundtrack imbues the evening with a hypnotic quality, and Lionel Arnould’s vivid images are cleverly superimposed onto the cube, creating a 3D-effect that transports us from a sparse hotel room and therapist’s office to a frenetic New York and a dimly lit Parisian alleyway.
Several of the vignettes featuring Davis (Wellesley Robertson III) are particularly visually arresting. When he puts together his trumpet and sets up the paraphernalia for his drug use, the disparate parts appear as striking shadows against a stark white background. Although Robertson’s part is non-speaking, his commanding physical presence and background in gymnastics lend his performance weight. It’s through his music – in the sad, haunting notes of his trumpet resonating down the years – that he speaks to us of love and loss.
Needles and Opium is on at the Barbican from 7th until 16th July 2016, for further information or to book visit here.