Ex Machina/Robert Lepage: Needles and Opium
Barbican Theatre, 7 – 16 July 2016



Needles & Opium was first performed in London 25 years ago; and now renowned French-Canadian dramatist Robert Lepage brings a revised version of one of his early successes for a ten-day season at the Barbican.  Inasmuch as it can be pinned down to a single time, Needles & Opium takes place in Paris in 1990. Robert (Marc Labrèche) is an actor hired to do the voiceovers for a documentary about the ultimately doomed romance between Juliette Greco and Miles Davis. This is a painful story for Robert to narrate since he himself is grief-stricken following the recent break up with his own lover. The play weaves together Robert’s fictional life and the real lives of both Miles Davis and Jean Cocteau (who made his first visit to the USA in 1949 – the same year that Davis went to Paris).

The play is bookended by Cocteau (also played by Marc Labrèche) reading extracts from his book A Letter to Americans and using the conceit that it is being written high above the Atlantic on the author’s flight home to France.  This demonstrates at once the production’s ingenious stage effects since Cocteau speaks while suspended on a Kirby wire against a panorama of stars back-projected on the open cube which subsequently twists and tilts to provide all the play’s settings – hotel rooms, studios, streets and basements.

Robert proves to be a deeply sympathetic and likeable character whose emotional plight comes across very convincingly.  In spite of the grief, which is always near the surface and sometimes breaks through uncontrollably, he has a wry, even if somewhat edgy, sense of humour.  In one very funny scene his attempts to explain his troubles to a hypnotherapist somehow spin away into an account of the Quebec independence campaigns of the 1980s and 90s which included referenda – and hence have resonances for today’s British audiences over and above anything that Robert Lepage intended when he originally conceived the piece.

Robert and Cocteau are the only speaking parts but Miles Davis (Wellesley Robertson III) also features in many scenes.  We watch him playing his trumpet, meeting Juliette Greco and beginning their love affair. But later, knowing that he cannot take her back to America where colour prejudice would blight their relationship, he slips back to New York alone where we see him subduing his grief with heroin. In these scenes the moving-cube stage set is most effective.  As Miles Davis wanders through New York in search of a fix he leans against the doors of a subway train and then, without him changing his own position, the set rotates, the back-projection changes and he is lying on his back in a shabby hotel room.  His inner insecurities are made visible as floors tilt, walls becomes ceilings and doors and windows change places.

Although Cocteau and Davis never met in real life, Lepage does bring them together for one scene towards the end of the piece in which Davis is unconscious in a heroin stupor while Cocteau reflects out loud on his own use of opium to still his particular demons.  We are all on a train rushing towards death, he says, and opium is a way to get off for a moment.

The not-quite-closing line of the play sees Robert, the jobbing actor who stands in for ‘us’, the ordinary mortals, ask the key question about drug addiction – if we aren’t Jean Cocteau or Miles Davis with rare gifts for turning suffering into art how else can we deal with the pain life inflicts?

This is an astonishingly gripping production. Alongside its strong writing and excellent performances, its set-design offers a constant shifts of space and patterns of light that are as fascinating as a kaleidoscope.