Needles and Opium is a meditation on love, loss, creativity and addiction. It is a revival of a 1991 work by the renowned French/Canadian theatre maker Robert Lepage and his company Ex Machina.
It takes the form of a dreamlike, loosely structured multimedia spectacle, incorporating live performance, aerial movement, physical theatre, film and sculpture (in the form of a large rotating set).
Carl Fillion’s design is the centre-piece – a moving platform with three sides, onto which images of different environments are superimposed. Over the course of the show it gently rotates, with the performers gliding across. It’s both an effective way of journeying through separate worlds, and mesmerising to watch.
Narratively, Needles and Opium flits between New York and Paris, as well as traversing decades as we follow the interwoven trajectories of Jean Cocteau, Miles Davis and “Robert”. Each character tells a similar story: traumatic relationship breakdowns followed by a descent into depression and monomania: unable to sleep, unable to carry on with their creative work, and finally succumbing to opium.
Marc Labreche, who plays both Robert and Cocteau, is remarkable. He has a quality of simplicity, ease and playfulness that is typically associated with film acting – and yet he makes it work on the Barbican stage, completely transfixing us with drawn out but deeply felicitous renditions of scenes that could very easily have been pretty prosaic.
Needles and Opium is unashamedly self-indulgent and navel-gazing, but then why not? Besides, any doubts are soon put to bed by its visual beauty and masterful central performance.