Entertainment Arts Needles and Opium

Needles and Opium

Nicola Frank-Vachon
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Marc Labrèche finds himself suspended in the air, talking upside down and climbing the walls in the innovative restaging of Needles and Opium, which will have its Australian premiere at the 2014 Adelaide Festival.

The actor, who was also in Canadian theatre-maker Robert Lepage’s original production 20 years ago, says the new version is “more like a 3D play”.

Scenes take place in a cube against which video images are projected and an acrobat (Wellesley Robertson III) plays the character of Miles Davis in what was described by one reviewer as “theatrical magic”.

The suspended actors also add an element of levity to a work with themes of drug addiction, displacement and creative genius.

“Of course there are some sad things about anguish and lack of self-confidence and pain and suffering,” Labrèche tells InDaily.

“But the play itself is, like, you see two guys in the air talking, spinning [on harnesses] … so it adds a lot of lightness.

“And it’s fun to do; it’s fun to be suspended and just doing some flickbacks and talking while we have our heads upside down, and people laugh because of that, and still I think they’re moved by the wonderful text and the scenography and the feeling of the show.”

Needles and Opium is presented as a series of vignettes inspired by the stories of opium-addicted French poet and film-maker Jean Cocteau, who visited New York in 1949, and heroin-dependent American jazz player Miles Davis, who stayed in Paris at the same time. Forty years later, their pain is echoed by the emotional torment of a lonely Quebec man called Robert, who is also at a hotel in Paris, trying to forget his ex-lover.

Asked if there is a central message about the link between pain, addiction and creative genius, Labrèche says: “Of course pain, addiction and creativity and genius are beautiful things for theatre and for building a play and a character, but it’s a very romantic ideal; the thing is, the truth is that Robert was heartbroken when he created the show and it was really the story about a young 30-year-old man at that time who was in Paris and in a hotel room to try to cope with his pain …

“There’s a question at the end of the play: If you don’t have Miles Davis’s or John Cocteau’s genius, how do you cope with your pain? How can you transform your sadness and your pain and make it creative and beautiful? That would be the main question of this version of the play now.”

When Labrèche first acted in the play 20 years ago, he was fascinated by the synchronicity of the stories of Cocteau and Davis – how Cocteau was visiting New York at the same time Davis was in Paris, and the similarity of their experiences.

The actor was especially entranced by Cocteau’s Lettre aux Americains (Letter to Americans), which he wrote on his way home, recounting his impressions of New York and American people.

“They were very strong letters and very strong ideas which 20 years later [after the first production of Needles and Opium] you understand very differently.

“I wanted to revisit that because it was still appealing to me … John Cocteau asks the good questions about what’s the purpose of all this, do you need to suffer to be creative, what’s the point of love in life?

“All those stories are still very interesting to me and it’s still very romantic and it’s still very important to me at 50, even if I’ve lost some dreams since I was 20 years old.”

There is also a certain synchronicity in Labrèche’s involvement with the play. He has been a fan of Cocteau for many years, having grown up in Montreal at a time when the filmmaker was very popular and many of his movies were being shown in the cinema. Labrèche’s father was also an actor from the French school of acting after World War II, at which time Cocteau was a strong influence.

“It’s like a family story, this love for John Cocteau,” he says.

“When I was reading the Letter to Americans that he wrote and that inspired Robert Lepage to create the play, it was like meeting someone I knew already.”

Needles and Opium will be presented at the Dunstan Playhouse at the Adelaide Festival Centre from March 13-16 as part of the Adelaide Festival.