'Needles and Opium' 20 Years Later - Still Alive, Still Relevant

by Michael Cox

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday April 6, 2015

In the mid-90s, Robert Lepage and Marc Labrèche came together to create Needles and Opium, a highly visual exploration of obsession and heartbreak. At Labrèche's suggestion, the pair decided to remount this show, which they had once toured throughout North America and Europe.

Boston is the first city in the United States to see this re-envisioning. The show is part of the ArtEmerson's World on Stage series and plays at the Cutler Majestic Theatre from April 9 to 12, from there it will continue its own multinational tour.

Labrèche could be called the Jon Stewart of Canadian television, but he also does sketch comedy, along the lines of Key & Peele. In Quebec, Ontario, he's something of a superstar. But he's decided to give that all up (for a time) and reunite with his old friend and collaborator.

Lepage, according to CBC Radio-Canada, is one of the nation's "most renowned figures in performing arts," gaining his reputation by exploring new artistic forms on a plethora of multimedia platforms. His company Ex Machina brings together everyone from actors, writers and designers to video artists, contortionists and musicians.

In "Needles and Opium," he weaves the stories of three individuals: A lonely actor from Québéc trying in vain to forget his former lover; French poet/filmmaker/provocateur Jean Cocteau's struggles to kick his dependence on opium; and jazz great Miles Davis' fighting to give up heroin. The result is a spectacular withdrawal experience juxtaposing Cocteau's words, Davis' music and Lepage's own efforts to alleviate a love addiction. (The production also features Wellesley Robertson III as Miles Davis.)

The new iteration is as much magic as it is theatre. Ingenious new scenography, original projected images, and an acrobat onstage are only a few of the effects that mesmerize the audience. Marc Labrèche couldn't be happier, as we learned in an interview with the artist.

Back to His Roots

EDGE: Weren't you on 'The Simpsons?' You did the voice of Krusty the Clown for Canadian television.

Labrèche: The satirical side of me took the lead for a couple of years.

But I wanted to change tone and go back to my roots in the theatre. That's why I put aside everything on TV to make me available for 'Needles.' The work on 'Needles' is, of course, much more sensitive and intimate than hosting.

I will go back to TV sometime. Of course I have to make a living. Theatre is fulfilling, but it's not fulfilling my stomach.

I'm lucky to do both things, because one gives energy and thought to the other.

EDGE: What's it like re-mounting a show you did 20 years ago?

Labrèche: I wasn't over it yet, and [Robert Lepage] said maybe we should think about redoing it.

Robert has never revisited an earlier show before. But because of the Cocteau's words, and the music of Miles Davis -- because of this script about heartbreak and love-pain -- it seemed like this show was still alive, still resonant.

Changes Made?

EDGE: How has it changed?

Labrèche: It used to be even more experimental. The script wasn't as tight. It was made in a time when Robert was going through a heart-pain of his own. He was still exploring and finding his voice. It's a more mature work now; a more realized work -- also a more sensual work -- because we have time and perspective. It was a more cerebral show 20 years ago; now it has heart, emotion and poetry.

EDGE: How has the run been so far?

Labrèche: All types of audiences seem to be responding to this show. People who have seen the first version and those who haven't, people who are into experimental, marginal theatre and some who are into classical theatre -- they're all sincerely moved by the story.

EDGE: Why do you think that is?

Labrèche: It's the genius of Robert to have this wonderful, magical method of storytelling. You're in a theatrical space that feels like it has no gravity; people are suspended in the atmosphere and talking. Yet it's also cinematographic and slick. It's like a romantic rock-and-roll show.


EDGE: But this is a serious show?

Labrèche: Even though we're talking about serious matters -- love-pain and the like -- it's still a very funny show. Robert is always looking for the funny side of things in his work. He doesn't annoy the audience with too much heavy thought. It's a good balance. We all experience heartbreak, so the show isn't heavy handed; it's intimate and soft and sweet.

EDGE: You're playing Cocteau, I assume.

Labrèche: Well, I'm playing two characters. I'm playing Cocteau and I'm playing Robert.

EDGE: Robert LePage? So this is an autobiographic show?

Labrèche: Not directly. The stories of Cocteau and Miles Davis are melded with Robert, who is the third character, a French Canadian actor going through a love-pain in a hotel room in Paris.

EDGE: So the events of the play didn't happen to him but he's a featured character in the play?

Labrèche: I think he experienced the hotel room in Paris and trying to get his lover on the phone. He talks about it freely himself, so I guess I can say that. But that's not the main story of the show. Robert is the main character, but that's not the main story, it's the mix of all three universes together.

Interpreting Cocteau

EDGE: Did you collaborate with Robert LePage to develop this new version of the script?

Labrèche: We did some improv and workshops. We added scenes. And we discussed, a lot, the order of the scenes. On that scale I was participating, but the show had already been through a strong creative process the first time it was produced.

EDGE: So love-pain, what does that mean?

Labrèche: Cocteau was in love with Raymond Radiguet, and when Raymond died Cocteau began taking opium as an anti-depressant, to get through the pain. And then it became something else after that. Miles Davis fell in love with Juliette Gréco -- [and he blamed his heroin habit in part on losing her.]

EDGE: There's a historical debate, but in your perception of Cocteau -- as a character in the play -- was his relationship with Radiguet sexual in nature?

Labrèche: I don't know.

He says about Radiguet, "When gods want to touch us they put on gloves. I think he was only loaned to me, and I knew one day I'd have to give him back because he was so perfect. He belonged to heaven."

Maybe they only made love a couple of times, but he was in awe, in admiration of Radiguet's soul.

An Emotional Perspective

EDGE: Cocteau denies any impropriety in a letter to Radiguet's father.

Labrèche: I think Cocteau is more of a romantic admirer. He was observing from a distance -- enjoying the view, so to speak -- enjoying the youth and the sensitivity of the man. That's the feeling I have. I may be wrong.

Cocteau was searching for purity. That could be pure sex, I guess, but not in that culture and that era. The sex wasn't that important. It was a poetic relationship.

My mother used to say great artist are maybe not great lovers, because they put their sexual energy into their work. If sex is creating something, artists are fulfilled enough in their creative life. That's her theory.

EDGE: I hope this isn't too personal -- but when we talk about love and pain and the differences in your life between the time you first performed in the show and now -- you lost your wife to cancer. Does that loss color your performance?

Labrèche: I don't think you need to kill someone to play a murderer.

You can use your own experience as an actor if it helps you find your way to a character. But if your own experience isn't truthful to the character's journey, that's not a good thing.

Of course, when you're talking about love-pain at 30 and at 50, it's not the same experience. I experienced love-pain just last year, and yet the losses I've had in the past were more violent.

It's interesting; when you're 50 you have more perspective on emotion, so you're a little more detached. At the same time, the stakes for being in love are even greater because there's less time to be in love. You may never fall in love again.

To answer your question, yeah, I'll go there. When I'm doing the show I'm thinking about people I've loved and lost. I would think of my wife as the major... and I could only imagine what it would be like to lose one of my children, for instance. I have enough there to draw on emotionally.

Pain frees you, I think. You realize you can get through a lot of things that you wouldn't expect. You realize that you're lucky to be alive.

You want to just go for love, and give, and share with other people. In a strange way, it gives you a lot of pain but it liberates you at the same time -- the loss of someone so dear.

I shouldn't lose my wife. My children shouldn't lose their mother. Not as young as she was.

I have to see it as liberating. It's a funny and peculiar and... wonderful experience.

"Needles and Opium" runs April 9 - 12 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre (219 Tremont Street, Boston). For more information and to buy tickets visit artsemerson.org or call 617-824-8400.

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