Needles and Opium

Robert Lepage (Canadian Press photo)

I’ve just come from one of the most absorbing 105 minutes I’ve ever passed in a theatre, thanks to Robert Lepage.  I take it on faith (from the program, and from the time on my phone when I came out), as the show felt less than an hour long.

Needles and Opium opened tonight at the Bluma Appel Theatre, presented by Canadian Stage.  It’s another Ex Machina production, in co-production with Théâtre du Trident, Québec and Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, Montréal.  I read somewhere that this is a new production, but never having seen it before, I wouldn’t know.

The mise-en-scène is so completely absorbing you’ll be beguiled even if you don’t like jazz or musings about life & art.  Anyone willing to meet the work halfway, which is to say, anyone with a poetic sensibility & imagination floats out of the theatre like a child on Christmas morning.  The show never lets down, but always offers something, whether eye-candy, music, profound concepts, clever writing, physical virtuosity, or several of the above at the same time.

Marc Labrèche in Needles and Opium. Photo by Nicola-Frank Vachon.

Marc Labrèche in Needles and Opium. Photo by Nicola-Frank Vachon.

I must say that I am very relieved.  The title is a little too close to home, what with the news item about the new toxic drug from Russia –krokodil is it?—that now may have reared its nasty head in St Catharines, and the druggy exploits of a certain local politician who shall be nameless.  And then there’s the federal leader who’s come out in favour of legalization of marijuana.  Onstage? This is a very romantic understanding of drugs and their dangerous allure (in other words Stephen Harper and Nancy Reagan would disapprove).

I don’t think I have the usual perspective on Lepage.  I know him mostly from his operatic work (which I’ll try to put in chronological order):

  • The Canadian Opera Company double bill of Erwartung and Bluebeard’s Castle
  • Le Damnation de Faust at the Metropolitan Opera (that i saw alas only through high-definition broadcasts)
  • The Nightingale and other stories also at the COC
  • Wagner’s Ring Cycle, mostly via high definition broadcast, although I did have the pleasure of seeing Das Rheingold and Die Walküre at the Met.  This might be the one tiny mark on Lepage’s record, and not because his work was less than brilliant. No, this was a collision between a conservative audience in NY and an original approach to Wagner. I was heart-broken by the response, summed up in Maclean’s (I was quoted in Lepage’s defense).  There’s nothing wrong with the production that open minds wouldn’t fix. The shows i was at? the audience ate it up.
  • Thomas Adès’ The Tempest, again via high definition broadcast (and this one was rapturously received on both sides of the Atlantic)

The descent to Nibelheim from Das Rheingold (Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera): one of a near-infinite series of configurations of a protean set.

The very first thing I reviewed on this blog, roughly three years ago was Eonnagata at the Sony Theatre.  Then as now we were seeing not just the Ex Machina brilliance, but a text written by Lepage.  While I’ve never seen any of Lepage’s Vegas spectacles nor anything with Cirque du Soleil, I believe I’m not just conversant in Lepage’s performance vocabulary, but somewhere between “fancier” and “fanatic”.

If there’s one thing I hate about opera –and as an opera lover, scholar, interpreter and composer, it’s painful to admit—it’s a particular attitude among audience members (that is, the subscribers, who are usually the oldest & most conservative).   They show up with more stipulations than a first-time home-buyer.  They would rather be right than have fun.  I say this because in the presence of Lepage’s original text there can be no stipulations.  What a blast to be in a theatre full of people loving the show. One is free to enjoy, have fun, to have one’s mind expanded: without drugs.  It may be trite to say so, but this is a very trippy show.  You will see and feel things that are unquestionably a sort of altered reality.

 Wellesley Robertson III in Needles and Opium. Photo by Nicola-Frank Vachon.


Wellesley Robertson III in Needles and Opium. Photo by Nicola-Frank Vachon.

I couldn’t help seeing all sorts of connections & resonances with other work by Lepage.

As in Eonnagata we’re watching someone on the boundaries between worlds.  In Eonnagata we watched a person move between cultures, reminding me of Lepage himself, a francophone Quebecer who has come to English Canada & the USA, bilingual and likely with conflicted loyalties, someone fluent both in high art and popular forms such as circus & shows in Vegas.

In Needles and Opium we watch two (or perhaps three, as there is another figure whose name is Robert) similarly transient figures.  We see and hear Miles Davis taking bebop to Europe, where he’s not only appreciated more fully, but free of the usual racist restrictions.  And we encounter Jean Cocteau coming to America, a figure who for me echoed Lepage himself in his recent encounter with the philistines of NYC.  It’s darkly ironic, but also funny in a deadpan way.

The set and the projections work brilliantly with the aerials. Yes we’re watching people climb on the sides of surfaces or on wires, as in Erwartung or Damnation de Faust, or  Das Rheingold.  As in The Nightingale & other stories, shadow images tell a large part of the story.  The incessantly dynamic set is like life itself, changing endlessly, like that miracle machine in the Ring.  People may seem to be static but the set won’t let us see them that  way, but forces us to see change & transformation.  We’re watching people constantly on the edge, literally brought to a precipice, about to fall, dangling.  It may be the oldest of metaphors, but that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful.  Marc Labrèche and Wellesley Robertson III are endlessly fascinating to watch.

One nice bonus was getting the chance to bravo for Robert Lepage when he came out at the end.  Like Cocteau, he may not be understood or appreciated quite so well in America, but he seems to be at home here in Toronto.  I look forward to his next opera, whether it’s with the COC or at the Met.

But right now? You must see this if you can, only on until December 1st.

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5 Responses to Needles and Opium

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