"Critics will search for hidden meanings that aren't there," warns Jean Cocteau, (Marc Labreche) near the beginning of Needles and Opium. Though that is probably a misdirection or a cop-out, it is a relief, as all of us searching for meaning can just relax and let the hypnotic visuals, special effects and lilting words wash over us. Situated somewhere at the intersections of theatre, circus and performance art, Needles and Opium draws one in and reveals its meanings and themes in a non-literal fashion.
Writer/director Robert Lepage loves technology and the set of Needles and Opium does not disappoint. As the stately cube set revolves and evolves it becomes, through projections and trap doors, world after theatrical world. Unlike Totem or Ka, where the technology was designed to dazzle and emphasize the death-defying feats of the Cirque performers, Needles and Opium makes a point of being leisurely and emphasizing the human effort needed to make the effects work. Sometimes it is distracting, sometimes it adds to the sense of wonder. Though I am apparently not supposed to search for meaning, it does add to the play's debate about art versus technology, and inspiration versus drug-induced creation.
At it's heart, Needles and Opium is about heartbreak and how to survive it. The anguish of attempting a very civilized break-up is contrasted with the melodramatic destruction of Miles Davis (Wellesley Robertson III). Acupuncture and hypnotism are shown to be as pointless as escaping into drugged distraction. Poetry, and by extension art, are the solution, and Jean Cocteau soars above the slowly rotating earth offering his benediction and just a bit of healing.
Needles and Opium is mesmerizing but it is, like much of Lepage's work, slow-moving. The audience is expected to slow their internal rhythms and surrender to what is meticulously set before them. The music of Miles Davis helps immeasurably and its haunting beauty is a perfect aural companion to the sumptuous visuals. Hours later, scenic fragments are still unfolding in my head, ideas are connecting and the lilt of the trumpet lingers just out of reach of my ears. There may be no hidden meanings in Needles and Opium but there is lots of memorable suggestion that lingers after creeping into one's head.
Needles and Opium continues until Sun, Dec 1 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front St E. www.canadianstage.com