Of hardship and heroin

02:31, Feb 18 2014

After a long break from theatre to work in television and film - including voicing Krusty the Clown in the French-Canadian version of The Simpsons - actor Marc Labreche plays legendary artist Jean Cocteau in the New Zealand Festival.

Robert Lepage is not only one of Canada's most acclaimed and popular playwrights - he is considered one of the best in the world. But while the New Zealand Festival in Wellington starting next month can boast having staged several of Lepage's works over the years - the last was The Dragon's Trilogy in 2006 - it is not often we get the opportunity of seeing a Lepage play first staged 20 years ago.

To top it off, it will include French-Canadian actor Marc Labreche who also performed in the original version.

Labreche says he was keen to revisit it. He had briefly mentioned his wish to Lynda Beaulieu - Lepage's sister and also his manager - that he would like to redo the play after a hiatus from theatre for "quite sometime". In the interim Labreche had largely performed in Canadian television shows and films. His CV includes LeCoeur a ses raisons, a parody of popular drama series and voicing Krusty the Clown and Otto in the French Canadian version of The Simpsons.

Lepage was convinced and both worked closely together for three years to recreate Needles and Opium .

Labreche says the three years gave Lepage time to "little by little, gain a clearer vision" for what he had wanted to change and keep in the new version of the play. The aim for Lepage was to "change the body but to keep the heart of the play". Even 20 years on, Labreche still praises Lepage saying the playwright is "much more further in his visionary process than 20 years ago" and this will be expressed in the 2014 version.


Labreche plays two characters - Robert, a voice artist from Quebec, and Jean Cocteau, the famous French poet, artist and film-maker who is on his way to New York.

So are there any differences to playing the same characters 20 years on? Labreche, who first played them when he was in his early 30s, says his views on love are much more mature now he is in his 50s. "At 30, there is a more romantic attitude where you feel like the world is crumbling down but you will probably love again, but at 50, you don't feel you have much time left to find love again and to build something with someone".

In the version for the New Zealand Festival , a new character is also introduced- jazz great Miles Davis. In the play the American jazzman is struggling with the break up with his lover during his stay in Paris in 1949. Davis is played by acrobat, gymnast and dancer Wellesley Robertson III. Robertson has a non-speaking role, but according to Labreche, he "expresses his pain through his dance and acrobatic skills".

With the introduction of a new character, Labreche says that the play has been transformed into an intricate three-dimensional theatrical show.

Pain and anguish are the main themes as the characters cope with these hardships through heroin, opium, acupuncture and hypnosis.

Lepage has portrayed these hardships in a "creative way to make something beautiful out of it" says Labreche.

He stresses that Needles and Opium "is not a heavy and sad show" and there are also very humorous aspects. For one it includes Labreche flying through the air - thanks to wires and a harness - while still being a play that people can relate to. "[It] directly talks with the audience".

Needles and Opium is performed as part of the New Zealand Festival at the Opera House, February 21-24.

The Dominion Post