Ex Machina/Robert Lepage
New Zealand Festival
Opera House | February 21-24
I’d never seen a Robert Lepage show before Needles and Opium. How was I to know what I was walking into on a bright Saturday afternoon? This is a significant detail; I was so completely submerged in Needles and Opium that walking back out into sunny Wellington was as surreal as the show itself.
It was clear from the beginning that our perceptions of reality, thoughts, and responses are there to be challenged. The set is half a box, suspended in the air, which rotates allowing each surface to play the floor, the wall, and the various images that are projected on it. The two actors, Marc Labrèche and Wellesley Robertson III, interact with the rotating box seamlessly. The box itself becomes a character they must connect with, and they do with grace and control; fly-lines are often used so they can defy gravity, the most memorable moment being Marc Labrèche as Jean Cocteau suspended against a backdrop of a starry night sky.
Needles and Opium is a revised version of the show created and performed by Robert Lepage 20 years ago. Although Labrèche now plays the character, also named Robert, it is an autobiographical show about heartbreak. However, the tales of Jean Cocteau’s visit to New York and Miles Davis’s trip to Paris are interwoven so tightly that it becomes less about the immediacy of heartbreak, but a deep anxiety about losing oneself—losing one’s mind—to obsession and dependency. Labrèche’s performance as Robert does ground the show with humility—he conveys, for example, comical complexities of French/American miscommunications amidst inner heartache and sorrow with such ease. In contrast, his flamboyant—and at times hard to understand via a thick Parisian accent—Cocteau, contained within the parameters of ‘the box’ and multiple references waxing lyrical to the wonders of opium, suggests, and reveals that everything is an illusion—even heartache, which is long forgotten if given enough time.
Drug addiction is not explicit during the play, at least not for a while, until Davis purchases heroin from a dodgy street in NYC, yet the fluid, and choreographed movements of Robertson III within the revolving stage, visually imply their presence.
Humour plays a subtle and significant role in the play, more often that not from miscommunications through language, culture, or understanding the person on the other end of a telephone call. Other times it is Jean Cocteau popping out from behind, around, or through something. Our compassion for Robert grows, and while sometimes the jokes are repetitive and appear to delay the story from unfolding, they reveal yet another layer of this distorted reality.
Needles and Opium is not a show I will forget anytime soon. I was completely enthralled by the performances, the technologies, and the symbiosis of the two, which could only be achieved through the amazing talents of all involved in Lepage’s theatre company, Ex Machina.