Going Out

REASON TO LOVE: Because Robert Lepage brings French and English together in a hypnotic display of theatrical brilliance

This article was originally published in the May 2015 print edition of Ottawa Magazine

By Paul Gessell

Robert Lepage. Photo by Renaud Phillipe
Robert Lepage. Photo by Renaud Phillipe

Robert Lepage’s play Needles and Opium was performed in French at the National Arts Centre in 1991. No English version had yet been written. In fact, there was barely a script in French. “It was a sketch,” Lepage recalls. Call it a work in progress. This month, we are getting the completed masterpiece at the NAC in the play’s first ever back-to-back outings, in French (May 19–23) and in English (May 27–June 6).

Needles explores the pain of lost love, addiction, and loneliness as experienced by a heartbroken Québécois man and the coincidental 1949 trips of French surrealist filmmaker Jean Cocteau to New York and African-American trumpeter Miles Davis to Paris. Back in 1991, Lepage played all the roles. In May, there will be two actors, Marc Labrèche and Wellesley Robertson III, in both productions.

The “soul” of the play remains the same in French and English, says Lepage, but the “energy” is different. Needles is “jazzier” in English and more “poetic” in French. Movements of the actors and their interactions with props are different in each version. Think of dancers who must tweak their choreography for two slightly different pieces of music.

Dialogue has been changed since 1991 to take into account such events as the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As well, the new version involves a large rotating cube on the stage, a magical device for changing scenes and depicting the feelings of euphoria experienced by Cocteau, on opium, and Davis, on heroin. The cubeless 1991 version was “bi-dimensional” and “very flat,” says Lepage. Now the play is “three-dimensional” and “sculptural” — and definitely worth seeing.