Needles and Opium at barbican review: a surreal jazz noir and absurdist Miles Davis tribute

Steve Dinneen
Follow Steve
Marc Labrèche floating in a giant rotating cube
Needles and Opium

Needles and Opium is a surreal jazz noir staged in a giant revolving cube. It’s a revival of a 1991 play by mercurial French Canadian theatre director Robert Lepage, whose past works include Lipsynch, a nine-hour meditation on the human voice.

This play begins with actor Marc Labrèche – who also starred in the production 25 years ago – floating against a backdrop of stars. He somersaults in the air and vanishes, appearing seconds later through a hole in what has become – through incredible projection trickery – a seedy-looking hotel room.

This sense of dislocation continues throughout, the cube morphing from animated subway carriage to back-alley to sound studio. Originally a one-man show, it now includes a separate actor as Miles Davis, and the scenes of him playing the trumpet, in which the brilliance of his music enables him to transcend the very laws of physics, are utterly hypnotic.

The narrative is vague: protagonist Robert is in Quebec to record a voice over for a Miles Davis documentary, and there’s a loose parallel drawn between his inability to recover from a lost love and the breakdown of Davis’s relationship with Parisian singer Juliette Gréco. More broadly it explores the intangible link between suffering and genius, creativity and addiction.

But, true to form, Lepage’s work defies attempts at neat unpacking. His work is about sensation and emotion – as Robert says with a wry smile, “Critics always look for hidden meanings that aren’t there”.

Related articles