Monday, July 18, 2016

Needles and Opium

Needles and Opium - Wellesley Robertson III as Miles Davis
Back in 1992, as a young director just starting to make work that veered away from the standard British approach to text and performance, I saw Robert Lepage's Needles and Opium during its very brief, 16 performance run at the Cottesloe Theatre.  That night was a game changer.  I'd already been interested in the use of projection and the way imagery and music could generate new layers of meaning beyond mere realism - in fact I was just about to direct my first opera...  but what Robert achieved in Needles and Opium was so much more than an aesthetic shift or a display of technical wizardry.  This was the first production I had seen that used the full vocabulary of theatre to generate profound meaning that could not be achieved in any other way.  It made me understand how the British critical tradition, in which everything is a code for something you can explain in words, totally misses the great joy of performance, which is its lived immediacy - its ability to reach our spiritual heart through the combination of image, movement, tone, word and rhythm.  I searched out other work by this extraordinary artist - I saw The Dragon's Trilogy and The Seven Streams of the River Ota live; I watched Tectonic Plates on video - many times; I showed the documentary Who is this nobody from Québec to several years' worth of students at Rose Bruford.

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
Like most theatrical magic, it was really clear how it was done.  It was also terrifying and beautiful at the same time.  In 2016, there is a second performer to play Davis, and so the character is seen fully on stage.  The projections all come from the front, onto an extraordinarily versatile revolving half cube.  And this means that the injection now becomes absorbed in the busier world around it, less clear, less intense.

Needles and Opium - the syringe in 2016
Most of the time, the imagery is fresh and energised - finding a contemporary way to bring 1949, the year of Cocteau's visit to New York and Miles Davis's to Paris, into clear view for an audience today. We know that we are looking at these men and their time from the perspective of now.  And so we find ourselves asking what their stories might mean for today.  And Robert's own story too.  At the centre of the piece is his autobiographical story: his own journey to Paris when dealing with the end of a love affair, and his reaching in to his cultural antecedents, French thought and imagery, American jazz, to find the consolations of creativity.  In the new version of the play, the central character has aged, like his creator, and has acquired a longer view of his emotional turmoil.

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

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