[2014128] Needles and Opium

[2014128] Needles and Opium

Ex Machina @ Dunstan Playhouse

2:00pm, Sat 15 Mar 2014

One of the most significant performances in my Festival history was the March 1, 1998 performance of The Seven Streams of the River Ota; not only did it open my eyes to durational theatre, immersive spectacle, and the Festival in general, but it also introduced me to a partner-in-crime… my major Significant Other (thus far). And whilst that relationship (such as it was) is over, the friendship – and the glorious manner of our meeting facilitated by Ota – continues on.

In addition to the emotional attachment that surrounds the memory of that performance, Ota proved to be an eight-hour epic theatrical event, full of stunning performances and technical stage wizardry; thus, when it was announced that this year’s Festival would be featuring another of writer/director Robert Lepage’s earlier works, reworked for a new audience, I got my pen out and inked in my intent… a matinée? Perfect.

After opening night was beset by technical problems, causing a premature end with a quarter of the performance remaining, the buzz around town was somewhat muted and sceptical. But within moments of the start of the show, it became clear why technical difficulties could occur: the set, a massive cubic shape of three walls, stood on its corner and rotated throughout. It was used as a projection surface, trapdoors allowed performers to creatively enter and exit scenes, and the natural slope of the set permitted many quirky visual treats – some of which required safety harnesses, permitting characters to fly through the air.

The staging, and direction, really was remarkable. Imaginative, challenging, glorious.

Which makes it all the more shameful that I found the actual subject matter of Needles and Opium to be deathly dull.

But it all started so promisingly, with as the lonely figure of Marc Labrèche slowly crossed the stage whilst narrating; suddenly the stage lit up with a thousand points of light, with Labrèche sailing through these stars. But we’re soon back in a scene approaching normalcy: Labrèche plays Robert, in Paris to record the narration for a documentary on Miles Davis (and his lover, Juliette Gréco). To occupy himself in the city, he starts reading a book by Jean Cocteau, and listening to a live recording of Davis.

Thereafter the performance spins between the characters of Robert and Cocteau (also played by Labrèche) and Davis (wonderfully performed by Wellesley Robertson III – though played as a mute (except for his trumpet), his body language spoke volumes). There’s a pervasive sense of loneliness shared by all three characters: Cocteau and Davis only seem capable of feeling though the use of opium and heroin (respectively), whereas Robert seemed to wallow in his loneliness, comforted by the record and book. The overall mood is of melancholy and despair, especially once the drugs take their toll, with addled and lethargic characters providing a painful narrative… it really was difficult to watch Davis pawn his trumpet.

There were some reports of standing ovations at other performances; it certainly received no such recognition from the audience in this matinée, nor was it even vaguely considered by myself. One can see that Lepage was trying to create a connection between the use (or the addiction?) of drugs, and the creativity of Davis and Cocteau… but it felt heavy-handed and bereft of subtlety. Far from being the supremely balanced experience of The Seven Streams of the River Ota, Needles and Opium felt like a transparent masterclass in style over substance. As a spectacle, it was sublime; as a coherent piece of theatre, it flailed in vain for emotional impact.

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