|Needles and Opium - Wellesley Robertson III as Miles Davis|
Not that I was alone in this. If you look at world theatre from the mid-90s onwards, it won't take long to find the influence of Lepage. Think of how Complicite moved away from their clowning roots. Think of Ariane Mnouchkine's embrace of projection in Le Dernier Caravansérail.
So - when I heard that, 25 years after its creation, Needles and Opium was coming back, I was actually rather nervous; and this grew worse when I heard that this was a new staging of the play, one that brought it more "up to date" in the use of technology. I will confess that, in some of Lepage's recent work, I've found the technology a bit overwhelming. It's as if the game-playing that is possible with the machine of theatre and all the new developments in the digital world has at times eclipsed the simple desire to tell a story. Medium becoming message. I dreaded that the emotional purity of the play's three intertwining storylines might be swamped by technological showmanship. So I decided not to see it. And then lots of friends whom I totally trust, including Tony Guilfoyle (an actor who works regularly with both Border Crossings and Lepage) told me I had to. And I did.
It's clear from his programme note that Robert shared an element of my trepidation. And that's exactly why the new production is such an extraordinary success: because it reinvents the play for 2016 (and in work of this kind play and production are the same thing). It makes next to no attempt to recreate what was so beautiful before, because what was beautiful in a live setting in 1992 is mere nostalgia today. Instead it searches for the beating heart of the piece, and transplants it into a healthy new body. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the bits of the new version that are least successful are those that come closest to the original that I (still) recall with such passion. In the original, a key element was an overhead projector, located behind a single lycra screen, which was used for amazingly creative shadow play. In one astonishing moment, Robert, silhouetted as Miles Davis, was injected by a vast syringe - the liquid spilling around him.
|Needles and Opium - the syringe in 1992|
|Needles and Opium - the syringe in 2016|
In what I'm pretty sure is a new section of text, he tells an unseen therapist about his problems in terms of his Québecois identity. Central to love, and central to art, is always the question of identity. As a Québecois, Robert finds himself part of a cultural identity that is not quite European, not quite North American, that can be, and often is, rejected by both and that therefore tends to reject both in turn - but which must ultimately embrace its own inherent diversity in order to reach a psychological equilibrium.
At this moment of extreme identity crisis in Britain, the play felt incredibly immediate and potent. And consoling too.
|Needles and Opium - the cube|