Opera House, Wellington

21/02/2014 - 24/02/2014

New Zealand Festival of the Arts 2014

Production Details

“The alchemist of modern imagistic theatre” – The Guardian

For dedicated fans of contemporary theatre, Robert Lepage needs no introduction. The Canadian director has created an incomparable body of work, including The Dragons’ Trilogy and eight-hour play Seven Streams of the River Ota which made waves at previous Festivals. 

The idea for Needles and Opium was born from Lepage’s discovery that artist Jean Cocteau and jazzman Miles Davis first crossed the Atlantic in 1949 to visit each other’s cities. The play finds further parallels between drug addiction, psychological obsession and art. Lepage has revisited the piece 20 years after its inception, enriching it with an updated storyline and new audiovisual wizardry. See the work of this “consummate theatrical sorcerer” (The Telegraph) in a performance that will be as much magic as theatre. 

Starring Marc Labrèche and Wellesley Robertson III 

“His shows are distinguished not only by their warm humanity and intricate narrative interweavings, but also by their unique use of technology, ranging from old-style theatrical trickery to the latest digital wizardry.” – The Telegraph

“One good reason to see Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium…it’s a masterpiece.” – The Star

“Beautiful, poetic and cinematic.” – Mooney on Theatre

Lepage’s play about love, loss, addiction and obsession features at the New Zealand Festival in Wellington from
21-24 February 2014 
Fri 21–Sun 23 Feb, 7pm 
Sat 22 Feb 1pm and
Mon 24 Feb, 6pm
at the Opera House
Tickets $38-$78
Ticketek (excludes booking fee) 
1hr, 35mins.

  • Text: Robert Lepage
  • Director: Robert Lepage
  • English translation: Jenny Montgomery
  • Director Assistant: Normand Bissonnette
  • Performed by: Marc Labrèche; Wellesley Robertson III 
  • Set Designer: Carl Fillion
  • Props Designer: Claudia Gendreau
  • Composer and Sound Designer: Jean-Sébastien Côté 
  • Lighting Designer: Bruno Matte
  • Costume Designer: François Saint-Aubin
  • Image Designer: Lionel Arnould

The show contains excerpts from Jean Cocteau's A Letter to Americans and Opium, the Diary of a Cure.

  • Director's Agent: Lynda Beaulieu
  • Production Manager: Julie Marie Bourgeois
  • Production coordinator: Vanessa Landry-Claverie
  • Technical Director: Michel Gosselin
  • Tour Manager: Charlotte Ménard
  • Stage Manager: Adèle Saint-Amand
  • Sound Manager: Marcin Bunar, Karl Vincent
  • Video Manager: Thomas Payette
  • Lighting Manager: Bruno Matte, David Desrochers
  • Costume and Props Manager: Marilou Nadeau
  • Head Stagehand: Pierre Gagné
  • Stagehand: Sylvain Béland, Antony Roy
  • Rigger: Julien Leclerc
  • Automation Consultant: Tobie Horswill
  • Video Consultant: Catherine Guay
  • Make-up: Jean Bégin
  • Réalistation des costumes: Carl Bezanson, Julie Sauriol
  • Set building: Scène Éthique; Astuce Décors

An Ex Machina production

Theatre ,

Absorbing stories and theatrical magic

Review by John Smythe 22nd Feb 2014

This is a remounting and retelling of a work Robert Lepage created  and performed in, solo, some 20 years ago. This iteration, developed with his Canadian theatre-making company Ex Machina, premiered in Quebec City last year, then played in Toronto. It comes to the New Zealand Festival en route to Adelaide then Montreal – and what a privilege it is to have it here!  

A film-maker friend once coined the phrase ‘story in a box’ to describe low-budget productions contained in one room, not unlike some stage plays of old. But with Needles and Opium, Robert Lepage and his team prove ‘a story in a box’ need have no limits.

The set is actually half a box: two walls at right-angles and a floor, although each plane takes turns to be the floor or a wall as the structure – and the intersecting stories contained within – turn mesmerizingly on a hidden mechanism. Doors, windows, hatchways, trapdoors, beds and small furnishings appear and disappear, as back-projections – often extremely realistic, sometimes sublimely abstract – paint the planes to relocate the action. An invisible team of nine operate the show backstage. (See production page for credits.)

Fly-lines are also employed at times to allow the two actors to defy gravity. The whole presentation has a dreamlike sense of weightlessness about it, enhanced by the sound quality. The one speaking actor – Marc Labrèche – wears a radio mic, so his voice is both conversational and slightly disembodied, as in a dream.

So much for the technology; it’s the stories that unfold within the box that draw us in.

It’s 1989 and a broken-hearted Québécois, Robert Lepage (now played by Labrèche), whose lover has found another in New York, has come to Paris to record the narration for a Canada/France coproduced documentary film about sultry chanteuse Juliette Greco and American jazz trumpeter Miles Davis in bohemian Paris.

Lepage finds himself in Room 9 of Hôtel La Louisiane, once inhabited, 40 years earlier, by Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who befriended Miles Davis (personified live by Wellesley Robertson III) and encouraged his romantic relationship with Greco (an unthinkable prospect in the USA back then).

Meanwhile French poet and film-maker Jean Cocteau has crossed the Atlantic in the opposite direction (to present his feature film, L’Aigle à deux têtes). Excerpts from his A Letter to Americans, and also Opium, the Diary of a Cure – delightfully rendered in a heavy French accent with a light touch by Labrèche – punctuate the Parisian stories. Initially Cocteau’s commentaries contrast the cultures and then the contents blend when a broke and broken-hearted Davis returns to New York and also succumbs to a needle-fed opiate.

Just in case the title has made you wonder, Needles and Opium in no way glorifies drug addiction; it is simply there as an example of how one might deal with emotional pain and make everything worse. A thread within Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and the recent death by overdose of Philip Seymour Hoffman show how timeless and ubiquitous all that is.

Parts of Lepage’s drama are extraordinarily simple, even prosaic, yet insightfully funny – trying to place a long-distance phone call; acclimatising himself to the French way of doing things in the recording studio – so that the emotionally moving moments, when they come, have a strong impact. A minimalist in his acting style, Marc Labrèche is fully present to every moment and compels us to share them with empathy.

With just his trumpet to speak for him, the Miles Davis story is equally strong thanks to the contained physicality Wellesley Robertson III brings to the role. His succumbing to Greco in the bath is as seductive as his pawning his trumpet back in New York is poignant. His redemption back in the Paris recording studio in 1957, simultaneously creating and recording the score to Elevator to the Gallows as Jean Moreau haunts the screen while Lepage has an imaginary conversation with director Louis Malle (on film) in the control room, is but another of the many memorable moments.  

At one point we are treated to a droll explanation of how Lepage stumbled into theatre as a vocation and why Quebec is fundamentally theatrical, its decades from the 1950s to the 1990 constituting a five act ‘Comedy of Errors’. At another, Lepage identifies with Opheus and his torments in the Underworld. When the play ends, after just 100 minutes, it is astonishing to consider how much history and how many lives in so many circumstances have been traversed and experienced, effortlessly, as in a dream.

Robert Lepage has often said his objective is to create theatrical events that could not be experienced any other way than in live performance. Needles and Opium certainly fills that bill, as did The Seven Streams of the River Ota (2000), The Far Side of the Moon (2002) and The Dragons’ Trilogy (2006) at previous NZ International Arts Festivals, and The Andersen Project (2009) at the Auckland Arts Festival.

Afterwards, at the Festival’s opening function, some people said they felt the technology had overwhelmed the story. All I can say is it didn’t for me, or my companions. Maybe we’ve become used to Lepage and know there is always a very human story and a delightful sense of humour at the heart of his works. Certainly part of my brain was wondering how certain effects were achieved but, as someone else said, this production allows itself space to breathe. The transitions create their own moments of theatrical magic and don’t impose on the substantive stories.  

The standing ovation awarded to Ex Machina was thoroughly deserved.


John Marwick February 23rd, 2014

A mesmerizing show the details of which fell into my sub-consious so thanks for your excellent review which brought it back so well.  The one aspect that I struggled with was Lebrache's Cocteau's French accented English which was difficult to understand - perhaps we should have had the sub-titles for that as well as the French.

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Hi-tech production delivers the goods

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 22nd Feb 2014

If anyone is going to push the boundaries of a theatrical experience it is Canadian Robert Lepage and his theatre troupe Ex Machina.  And the standing ovation and continuous applause on the opening night of his show Needles and Opium was certainly testament to that. 

Having been here a few festivals ago with his production The Seven Streams of the River Ota,audiences know to expect the unexpected.  And that was certainly the case with this production.

Created over 20 years ago before he established Ex Machina, Lepage has now updated the storyline of Needles and Opium and used modern lighting and technology to enhance it. 

Central to the whole production is a huge three sided box that turns and rotates creating a hotel room, then a recording studio then a busy street in New York.

The walls become floors and then walls again and a window in a wall becomes a trap door in the floor. An actor is lying on the floor one minute then standing up the next without ever moving.

And the two characters that inhabit this space are Jean Cocteau (Marc Labreche) French poet, novelist, dramatist, designer, playwright, artist and filmmaker who lived in Paris through the first part of last century.

The other is Miles Davis (Wellesley Robertson III), the black American jazz musician, trumpeter, bandleader, and composer who lived in New York through the same period.

In 1949 they crossed the Atlantic into each other’s cities and then back again and Needles and Opium covers this period when both were at the height of their creativity but when both were fighting personal demons of depression, addiction, self doubt and heart ache.

Wellesley Robertson III never speaks but is incredibly agile in his movements as he negotiates the rotating set, showing without words much of the pain Davis went through.

Marc Labreche as Jean Cocteau is also very agile, and while at times his accent makes it difficult to understand the dialogue the essence of his narration nevertheless comes across.

And permeating the production is Davis’s wonderful music which, coupled with the extraordinary lighting and visual effects, makes this boundary breaking production a must see of the festival.


Editor February 22nd, 2014

Just for the record, Marc Labreche does not only play Jean Cocteau. His main role throughout the play is that of Robert Lepage himself.

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