Dramatist Robert Lepage’s ‘Needles and Opium’ gets a shot of modernity


Special To The Japan Times

Variously described as “the alchemist of modern imagistic theatre” and a “revered actor and director” by The Guardian, Robert Lepage’s hyper-imaginative, highly visual work for theater, films and Cirque du Soleil stands out so much that the term “Lepage magic” has even become part of the arts vocabulary.

Yet despite also being known for his relentless globe-trotting, this 57-year-old Canadian who grew up as a French-speaker in Quebec City spent most of this summer in Scotland.

There, in what was a hot-ticket headliner, he performed his new work “887” — a solo, neo-autobiographical play he wrote and directed — to audiences at the Edinburgh International Festival, the world’s biggest theater event.

I flew to Edinburgh to see that play, whose title recalls 887 Avenue Murray, the address of the cramped, three-bedroom apartment Lepage’s family moved to when he was 3. Just as I’d made a journey, Lepage most certainly had too. In “887,” though, he had voyaged through time and space and beyond as he drew on his childhood memories — from a toy plastic bus and bullying to kidnappings, a sister’s brain tumor and more. The result was an astounding theatrical experience that was supremely touching and bitterly gritty, too, as it interleaved Lepage’s deeply complex inner self and the outer political struggle for Quebec’s independence that was raging when he was a boy.

Later, during a BBC open-talk program, he explained that his aim with “887” was primarily to examine memory, asking, “Why is long-term memory more persistent than short-term memory?” and “Why do we remember a phone number from our youth yet forget our current one?”

Starting from there, he used colorful miniature diorama sets and subtle lighting and projections that brought life to models of people, bridges, buses and a head-high 887 apartment block — as well as a barrage of astonishing visual effects seeming sometimes like synaptic maps of the brain.

Then, as he gradually segued all this into a universal mystery about human consciousness, he questioned how historical and social conditions can affect and reshape the memories on which a person’s self-image is founded — and hence determine their whole sense of identity.

Although Lepage didn’t have time to meet me in Edinburgh, I was fortunately able to talk to him on the phone recently when he was in Denmark on a European tour with “887.”

Although he said we may have to wait to see that new work in Japan, he did share his excitement about his piece “Needles and Opium,” which is coming to Setagaya Public Theatre in Tokyo next month (and about his megahit 2010 Cirque du Soleil program “Totem,” which opens here in February).

In fact, “Needles and Opium,” which premiered in 1991, was Lepage’s debut staging in Japan, in 1993 — a Tokyo run now legendary among this country’s theater-lovers and dramatists.

This time, though, we’re getting the updated and reworked 2013 version, which not only has lots of advanced technology but is also no longer a solo work.

As the title suggests, in “Needles and Opium,” two key figures are the heroin-hooked American jazz trumpeter Miles Davis (1926-91) and the opium-addicted French poet, filmmaker and artist Jean Cocteau (1889-1963). In addition, there’s the perspective of the narrator — a broken-hearted Canadian man played in the original by Lepage, who was then living through a breakup with his long-term partner.

However, Cocteau’s and Davis’ views of the world are also central elements of the play, since in 1949 Cocteau flew back to Paris from New York full of mixed feelings of fascination and disappointment after his first visit to America (which he wrote about in “A Letter to Americans”) — while, also in 1949, Davis went to Paris after being invited to introduce his bebop music there.

So, from a time before today’s era of globalization, what did Cocteau predict based on his American trip? What, too, did Davis experience? And ultimately, what does Lepage want to say to today’s audiences with this new version?

First off, the main structural differences are that the Canadian actor Marc Labreche is now cast in the role of heartbroken Robert that was Lepage’s back in the day — while a new character, of Miles Davis, is played by his compatriot Wellesley Robertson III.

In search of explanations, I asked the maestro himself, who laughed as he at first explained, “It has lots to do with age. When I first created this I was in my 20s, and now I’m in my late 50s, so I’m a different person.

“There were a lot of themes and things that the piece said 25 years ago that have matured — well, I hope they’ve matured. (Laughs.)

“Of course, if I’m going to revise a show, I have to find the value of it again for today. So the main character, who’s just broken up with his lover, was 28 or 29 then, but now he’d be in his 50s and breakups like that create different feelings then.

“Also, Jean Cocteau’s observations and his vision of America’s future that he wrote in his book were remarkable in light of what the country has become since 9/11. So, his perspective resounds differently now, I believe.

“Also, 25 years ago it was very delicate for a white actor to play a black man — so that’s why, when I did it, it was only done using a shadow. Although that was a very graphic way of presenting Miles Davis, like an animation or cartoon, I afterward thought it wasn’t a fair way to depict the very passionate and sexual love affair between him and Juliette Greco.

“Now, the presence of a real person on the stage, a real black actor, allows us to visualize the erotic tension present in 1940s Paris for a black man in an affair with a white French singer. It’s more real, more sensual, and a much stronger thread in the show.”

Otherwise, Lepage said, the text and the situations in “Needles and Opium” have not changed so much — “though it was very two-dimensional and now it’s more three-dimensional.”

In particular, he noted, “The staging and the technology available today allow us to do more things that are faithful to Cocteau’s wonderful surrealism in his movies and poetry. We tried to do that in the original, but it was very little compared to what we can do today.

“It’s as if the technology has caught up with the ideas of the show,” he said — while being at pains to declare in that BBC program, “I’m not a techie; I’m just surrounded by techies and I’m not obsessed by technology. In fact, I don’t know how to send an email properly.”

Despite that, as he told me on the phone, “things had evolved a lot” since he’d being suspended in midair in a harness in the original solo version doing all sorts of acrobatic maneuvers.

“But now, even though people will recognize settings like hotel rooms, streets and bars in a hyper-realistic way,” he said, “gravity is still very challenging because the set is a kind of rotating cube. So what is a wall becomes a floor and what is the floor becomes a ceiling; it rotates all the time. The performers are very challenged physically by the gravity.

“In fact, the set is suspended, as if it’s floating, because one of the themes of the show is addiction — drug addiction — so there’s a kind of sense of oblivion, of floating and being high and of taking a walk through the walls, you know, that kind of thing.”

Well, yes — and no. But who knows?

“Needles and Opium” runs Oct. 9-12 at Setagaya Public Theatre in Tokyo. For more information, call 03-5432-1515 or visit www.setagaya-pt.jp.