Needles and Opium (Barbican)

Robert Lepage returns to the Barbican with the UK premiere of his production exploring addiction and disorientation

Marc Labrèche in Needles and Opium at the Barbican
Marc Labrèche in Needles and Opium at the Barbican
© Francis Loney

Imagine a cube floating in space, rotating gently on its axis as, across its walls, entire worlds unfold, showing their face for a moment and then seeping away. Doors become windows, the sky becomes the floor. Inside this black and white kaleidoscope, where images appear and vanish like clouds moving across the sky, people come and go – in corporal form, slipping and sliding as the cube tips, and in filmed images flitting across the scene. Nothing is quite as it seems; everything is in flux.

This is the dazzling world that writer and director Robert Lepage has created for this revival of Needles and Opium, first seen in 1991. The original production (which I did not see) was legendary, giving an entire generation of theatregoers a new vision of what theatre could be, creating a kind of magic that no-one had ever seen before, turning a one-man show into an entire universe.

Here, using the latest technology, he has reimagined it for the next generation, in a production that still profoundly asserts the twin sources of Lepage’s theatrical genius, his unique gift for matching sinuous, sensuous images to rigorous thought. This is a work that touches the heart and stimulates the mind.

It is still essentially a one-man show in which the superb Marc Labrèche plays the two parts originally performed by Lepage. He is both a French Canadian producer called ‘Robert’ who has come to Paris to record the voiceover for a documentary about trumpeter Miles Davis’ stay in the city in 1949 when he fell in love with the folk singer Juliette Gréco – and Jean Cocteau, returning to his native France after a stay in America in the same year. But he is joined both in his imagination and on stage by Miles himself, embodied by the acrobat Wellesley Robertson III who never speaks but literally floats through the action like a melodious ghost, surrounded by his music in Jean-Sébastien Côté’s evocative soundscape.

It is hard to describe the intricacy of the relationship between the stories, but they meld in ways that are reflected in the shifting landscapes of the cube, infinitely moving, full of heartbreak and addiction, but also of love and the great soaring freedom that creativity can bring.

Needles and Opium looks sensational, thanks to the entire design team from Lepage’s Ex Machina company with its scenes bleeding into one another as the action flows from a bleak hotel room, to the alley behind a bar where Gréco is singing, to a gray studio where – in an exceptionally funny scene – Robert records his voiceover. At one moment, Davis soars above the Paris rooftops to play his trumpet; at another he vanishes into his own veins, dissolving in a drug rush.

But the fluency and complexity of what you see is more than matched by the intensity of Lepage’s script, which never labours the point, but weaves Davis’s story of love and heroin addiction into the prophetic words of Cocteau’s Letter to the Americans and his comparison of his own reliance on opium as stepping off the express train that is moving relentlessly towards death. In this context Robert’s obsession with his own lost love, becomes "an obsession poisoning my life", an addiction just as dangerous. The result is a rich tapestry of thought and feeling, a masterpiece conjured by this wizard of theatre.

Needles and Opium runs at the Barbican Centre until 16 July 2016.