Sculptural Imagination

Robert Lepage revisits his lauded production of needles and opium in a multi-layered and stunningly hypnotic reprise at the Barbican, London.

New technology is revolutionising theatre: with each year that passes it becomes more possible to tell a story in di erent forms and formats. This is sometimes executed poorly, but it is often done well – as with Bunny Christie’s awe-inspiring set for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time or the National Theatre Wales and their experiments with digital storytelling. However, it is rare to see technology used in a more elegant way than in a production by Robert Lepage.

The key is that Lepage’s execution of these devices is never extraneous to the emotion or the narrative of the story but somehow embedded in it. He explains that it is important these new technologies are “welcomed into the process and if they don’t find their place we should discard them.” It never works to write in a way that aims to “feature” it. Rather, integration should be organic to the story and at the heart of the piece, which is not to say that either this aspect of the show or the form, can’t influence the content also. Naturally, we can articulate stories in a different way with new technical opportunities. Lepage gives the example of a sculptor who creates a bust out of marble but finds a new material and is able to recreate it, out of, say, concrete. The object is the same, but different, with a new texture and an altered essence.

The sculpture analogy is particularly useful when we look at Lepage’s new, reprised version of his 1989 production, Needles and Opium, which Lepage considers “more of a sculptural interpretation of loneliness rather than the more naïve version” that he created 25 years ago. The references to sculpture make more sense when placed in context with Carl Fillion’s impeccably designed set: a rotating cube that spins and turns, dropping the performers into the different locations represented on each of its sides.

In keeping with the idea of form and content as two complementary and harmonious things, the set offers an evocation of the emotional turmoil of the characters as well as their physical movement across the world from America to France and vice versa. Interweaving three stories, this is by all definitions a three-dimensional show and the set both supports and expands on that concept. It’s a production about jazz trumpeter Miles Davis and his journey to Paris in 1949, and Jean Cocteau’s trip to New York that same year; depicted is an unknown Québécois actor in France. In Lepage’s own words: “It’s about heroin and opium addicts, jazz men in the 1940s and 1950s, and this great French poet.”

Perhaps more tellingly, it centres on addiction and creativity, heartbreak and loneliness and “the set conveys the vertigo associated with these things, the sense that you never have a clear relationship with gravity.” The production has progressed and changed substantially from its first outing in 1989. The new incarnation, with contemporary technology, really builds on the three-dimensional aspect, a sculptural portrayal of loneliness. Robert Lepage talks about the way they presented it originally: “In the first production it was a very simple two-dimensional projection and I was actually hanging in front of it in a harness. So I was the one doing the wind-milling! Slipping forwards and backwards.” This time the world moves with the actors, which better conveys the characters’ states and “the show becomes more of a kind of propeller for emotions and impressions.”

The dimensions of the play haven’t just been expanded in a physical form but also in an emotional and human way. Where Robert Lepage performed the piece alone 25 years ago, now three actors take the stage to portray the three main characters. Lepage considers this a benefit of maturity: “We naïvely do these things with one actor onstage. A one-man show is always about loneliness. But I think the more you continue writing a piece the more you realise you could have 15 people together and it would still be about somebody who is alone.” It was also incredibly important to him for Miles Davis to be incarnated by an actor: “In the early version what was unfair was that I wanted [the play] to be about the meeting of a black person and a white person in their respective cultures, European and American. But of course it was impossible for me to play that role.” Now, with an actor on stage, these ideas are able to be humanised.

In America in 1949 racial segregation was still legally enforced until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Europe that Miles Davis travelled to was, in contrast, a place of culture and open-minded artists, a place trying to redefine its set of values after the war. The culture shock would have been significant: “It was the old world meeting the new one and this whole idea of a new world order that started to appear.” It was Cocteau’s first time in New York and with An American in Paris at the same time, Lepage couldn’t resist the symmetry: “I was very curious about this historical coincidence. The sense of when and where things happen is always, for me, a very rich starting point. It also transpired that the room I would hang out in Paris, the spot where I would take refuge, was actually a room where Miles Davis and Juliette Gréco would hit it off. So there was this whole kind of aura around it.” Lepage is a character in the piece, playing his younger self going through his own trials and tribulations in love and art.

All three of the characters are suffering and all are addicts: Davis and Cocteau to heroin and opium, and Lepage to love: “The theme of addiction was something we all seemed to have in common.” There are many who would argue it is something that all artists have in common. In part a clichéd stereotype, at least with regard to physical fixation or drug abuse, Lepage has a theory that dependency and the creative life do perhaps go hand in hand, although “that doesn’t mean the reliance is necessarily a toxic one.” He gives the example of an actress he knew who played Medea and said that the difficulty with such parts is that you have to “go up 10 steps and then there are three more. And these are into craziness. You know that if you go up them there is a risk of going crazy but you have to go.”

He articulates the impulse best when he suggests that putting yourself in danger is the really strong addiction to those in the creative world: “You are attracted to things that will take you off track and make you meander in areas – dark areas – where you have never been. That’s very addictive. That’s very powerful.” Although recreating a show made 25 years ago might seem to be in contrast to this desire, the piece is so re-energised it is almost a new work.

Lepage confirms that “the idea wasn’t to do an homage to a naïve work of youth but to remash it so that is has something to say today. I think it is a richer production, a much more lavish staging of the piece.” He observes that the original was created pre-9/11 and as a result, it resonates differently with the society and culture of today: “We are in a very different place now than we were 25 years ago.”

Words Bryony Byrne

Needles and Opium. 7-16 July The Barbican Theatre, London.