NZ Festival 2014
Needles and Opium, Ex Machina (Canada), by Robert Lepage
Opera House, till February 24
Reviewed by Ewen Coleman
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 more than 20 years ago before he established Ex Machina, Lepage has now updated the Needles and Opium storyline 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 trapdoor 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 (played by Marc Labreche), a French poet, novelist, dramatist, designer, playwright, artist and film-maker 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 during 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 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 that Davis went through.
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' wonderful music which, coupled with the extraordinary lighting and visual effects, makes this boundary- breaking production a must-see of the festival.
- The Dominion Post