March 15, 2014

Mind-altering voyagers

Adelaide Festival

Mind-altering voyagers

Needles and Opium
Written and directed by Robert Lepage
Ex Machina
Duration 1 hours 45 minutes
March 15.

Created by Quebecois director Robert Lepage, Needles and Opium, last performed in 1992, has been recently revived and ambitiously redesigned. Like other Lepage creations (including previous Adelaide Festival triumphs, The Dragons Trilogy in 1988 and The Seven Streams of the River Ota ten years later) it threads disparate elements to create unexpected thematic and emotional connections.

Here, the needles refer to legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis and his heroin addiction during the late 1940s and early 50s; the opium signals the career and writings of Jean Cocteau, opium user, poet, dramatist and film director, most famous for Orpheus, Beauty and the Beast and Les Enfants Terribles.

The link is the year 1949, when Davis flew to Paris for an international jazz festival where, unlike Jim Crow America, he was feted by the French. He met poets, philosophers and, most notably, the singer Juliette Greco. At the same time Cocteau visited New York, fascinated by its energy and appalled by its puritanical fear of the imagination.

A third character, Robert, originally performed (as was Cocteau) by Lepage, is a Canadian voice-over actor, in Paris in 1989, working on a film documentary about Davis and Greco. Retelling their ill-fated story triggers a crisis for Robert, himself heart-broken by a failed relationship.

Ambitiously staged, the design consists of a large three-sided cube which rotates on its axis. Suspended by wires, the performers (actor Marc Labreche and acrobat Wellesley Robertson III) operate in a playing space which, with the use of splendid visual projections, often incorporating period photographs, fluently morphs from hotel rooms, to cityscapes to the offices of Life magazine. It is moving in every sense and further evidence of Lepage’s imaginative invention . It is also perilously intricate; on opening night a technical fault forced the performance to be abandoned.

Labreche is excellent as Robert, bringing poignancy to his emotional desolation, and, despite a heavy, sometimes hastily delivered, French accent, his portrait of Cocteau is vividly theatrical. Robertson’s Davis is balletic but silent, speaking only with his music – long flourishes of Birth of Cool-era Miles which are as thrilling and lyrical as they were in 1949.

Murray Bramwell

Published as “Mind-altering voyagers” The Australian, March 17, 2014. p.14.

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