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Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium review at the Barbican, London – ‘dazzling’

Marc Labreche in Needles and Opium at the Barbican Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Hotel rooms are strange spaces. Transitory and melancholy; places of sex, exile and dreams. It seems fitting that many of the scenes in Robert Lepage’s 2013 reworking of his early 1990s show Needles and Opium take place in hotel rooms. Watching it is an oddly soothing experience. It has a looping, woozy late night quality.

Robert, played with dry charm by Marc Lebreche, is an actor still emotionally raw following the break-up of his relationship. In Paris to record the voiceover of a film about Miles Davis, he’s in pain, in existential turmoil. Davis also suffered from a broken heart after he parted from his lover, Juliette Greco; the two men’s stories end up twisted with the words of French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau.

The whole thing plays out on Carl Fillion’s magic box of a set. A giant cube that slowly rotates, doors and windows opening up in the walls and floors as it becomes a series of hotel rooms and recording studios, the office of a hypnotherapist, the streets of New York.

Whereas originally this was a one-man show, Lepage’s revival places Davis on stage in the form of actor Wellesley Robertson III, but unlike Cocteau, he remains troublingly voiceless throughout, and his presence slightly unbalances the production.

There are some exquisite moments here – Cocteau Cheshire-catting in front of a backdrop of stars, a giant silhouetted needle hovering over Davis. But for all its technical audacity Lepage’s production is human in scale. While it’s sometimes difficult to unpick its tangled thesis, it’s a hypnotic experience, a heady exploration of the creative urge and the appeal of obliteration, art as drug and art as antidote.

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Technically dazzling and intricate exploration of art, addiction and heartbreak