Needles and Opium
10 October 2015 (Sat), Tokyo
A revival of Lepage’s breakout one-man show of 1995 – a reworking really, since it adds a character and evidently ups the technology factor considerably. I never saw the original, but any Lepage show is an event as far as I’m concerned, so I bought the tickets without knowing much about it (and despite the off-putting title).
The show opens in 1989. A Quebecois travels to Paris to narrate a documentary on Miles Davis and his doomed romance with Juliet Greco. Staying in a hotel room once occupied by Miles’ friend Jean Paul Sartre, all he has brought with him are a Miles recording and a book by Jean Cocteau, which includes a lecture entitled “A Letter to Americans” that the director delivered in New York in 1949 coincidentally just when Miles was in Paris. Three stories are interwoven: (1) Miles has had to abandon Greco, the love of his life, in fear that a mixed-race relationship would not be accepted in the US. He seeks solace in the comfort of heroin. (2) Cocteau is also mourning the loss of a lover and has apparently turned to opium. In his lecture, he urges America to live up to its ideals, suggesting his disenchantment with the world (I think – the actor delivered this in such a thick French accent that I couldn’t catch all of it). (3) In the present day, the narrator Robert has just been dumped by his lover back home, and finds himself emotionally overwhelmed whenever he tries to narrate the parts in the documentary about Miles’ love troubles. His tiny hotel room is no help, especially with the noisy lovemaking going on in the next room. Lonely and depressed, he tries acupuncture and pills.
All three characters are attempting to deal with the pain of heartbreak through external stimulus. The link with Cocteau is fairly tenuous – there’s no evidence here that the musician and filmmaker had anything to do with each other, and their only connection seems to be their drug addiction. Cocteau was only presented in lecture mode, so it was hard to get a true feel for him as a character. I assume there were clues in his lecture, though nothing was particularly obvious from the heavily accented French or the Japanese subtitles (thank goodness for those). The connection between Miles and Robert was much clearer, and those stories better complemented one another. Robert had his moments: his amusing pronunciation argument during the narration (French Greco vs. English Greco), dealing with the front desk when making an overseas call, the pleading phone call to his lover, his desperate attempts to block out the raucous din from the lovers next door (highlighting his awareness of his own solitude). But in the end he was just not a very interesting character, and his difficulties as presented here didn’t compare to Miles in intensity. I wanted to slap him and tell him to just get over it. But the juxtaposition did add to Miles’ story, so it worked in a sort of negative way. Miles was a mute presence, but his story was easily the most affecting. We could see him playing the trumpet against a silhouette of Greco in a nightclub, being drawn to her arms in a bathtub, falling into despair, shooting cocaine, putting his instrument together in projected shadows, memorably recreating the musical recording to Elevator to the Gallows as one of the film scenes rolls, and more. Despite never speaking, he seemed the most vividly drawn of the three.
Still, all of that was almost beside the point next to the jaw-dropping production itself. The opening is a body in silhouette on which pulsating acupuncture points are projected in light, like a body made of tiny dots, from which the character eventually steps out. The fantastical atmosphere is thus established from the start. The set is dominated by a huge cube standing on its point, which rotates so that the floor, ceiling and walls are constantly in flux. Vibrant video projections instantly change the scene from a seedy hotel to a Paris street to a recording studio to an abstract starry background, as well as film clips and a lecture with a (very young) Louis Malle and more. Panels suddenly open to become a table, a bed, and most strikingly doors or openings that welcome or spit out characters, who fly through – right-side up, upside down, spinning, hanging – suspended by wires. The character may stand on the floor of one scene, then shifts his foot to a wall that becomes the floor of the next scene, or jumps through an opening as another actor emerges from the floor onto the set. The entire atmosphere was dream-like, beautifully fitting Miles’ jazz, Cocteau’s surrealism (or un-realism), and the druggy state of both. The Miles actor was especially acrobatic, as when he crawled on the ground in a drug-induced state on a shifting set. The cube could be used for abstract presentations, such as Cocteau hovering high above the ground against the stars, or fairly realistic depictions like Robert’s recording sessions (in an overly long scene). And it could do both, as in the Dali-like scene when the hotel room revolved so that the left wall become the floor and then the right wall. Nor was this atmosphere restricted to the set. Cocteau appears at one point with four arms, all acting in synch; abstract parts are projected in shadows on a screen and put together to reveal a trumpet; Miles is lowered relentlessly toward Greco (seen from behind) in a bathtub, disappearing slowly into her arms and through the floor; Miles prepares his heroin on a table again reflected in shadows on the screen, rolls up his sleeve, and is lifted towards a shadowy needle.
These constant unexpected shifts in perspective and physical movement of the set were a proxy for the hallucinatory effects of the needles and opium as well as the dislocating effects of loss and loneliness. The show’s themes were much more powerful in the presentation than in the script.
Robert and Cocteau, apparently played originally by Lepage himself, were portrayed by Marc Labrèche. The role required him to speak English, a good deal of French, and Cocteau’s (overdone) French-accented English. He was as nicely low-key as Robert as he was flamboyant as Cocteau. Wellesley Robertson III was terrific as Miles. Even with the harness, he needed to be nimble to handle the physical demands of the role, which included flips and dives and more. I assume he’s either a dancer or gymnast. He was also great with the trumpet; it really looked as though he was playing. Excellent all round.
I’m still not quite sure what the curious book was trying to say, but it said it beautifully. Highly recommended.