Reviews London TheatreWest End & Central Published 14 July 2016

Review: Needles and Opium at the Barbican

Barbican Theatre ⋄ 7th-16th July 2016

Drows’d with the fume of poppies: Tim Bano reviews Robert LePage’s interweaving narratives of Miles Davis and Jean Cocteau.

Tim Bano
Needles and Opium at the Barbican. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Needles and Opium at the Barbican. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

You take a call on a crowded train. You chat for a couple of minutes, the inevitable lines: “I’m on a train. You’re breaking up.” And then you do break up. You put the phone down and you notice the carriage is silent. Suddenly you’re acutely aware of all the ears of all the passengers pricked in your direction. They’ve been listening, of course they have, because they’re sick of the Metro and they’re sick of Candy Crush and your conversation, the half of it they can hear, is more interesting.

One-sided conversations fill the floating space in Needles and Opium. Robert is on the phone, we can only hear his words and his reactions – not the interlocutor. He’s in a studio to record a voiceover, we can only hear his commentary and his remarks – not the notes of the director in the sound booth.

Break-ups fill the narrative, too. People in love who had defined themselves as half of a whole now cut loose and bereft. Living with a new silence. Jean Cocteau, turning to opium at the loss of Raymond Radiguet. Miles Davis, turning to opium at his split with Juliette Greco.

Things and people in the play used to be whole, like the three sided cube balancing on its corner and gently revolving. Stars and space are projected onto it. A man pretending to be French existentialist, novelist, dramatist, poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau floats and recites his letter to the Americans. The cube turns 90 degrees, the projections change, gravity makes a flap open up and a bed fold down. It becomes a small Parisian hotel room.

Storyless, the narrative is instead driven by suggestions and coincidences. That Cocteau and Davis both first crossed the Atlantic in 1949, Cocteau to New York and Davis to Paris. That Robert is narrating a film about Davis in a Parisian recording studio. That all three are recently bereft of the love of their life. Jazz and existentialism, boon companions, fill this world. Swirling, despairing, impossibly complex trumpet reveries and the philosophy-swamped letters of a French visionary.

Vignettes, maybe. Or musings. Like free jazz, big themes go through the elevation and distortion of improvisation, only half-suggesting the linear narrative we expect. Improv on love, on addiction, on the creation of art. Art about art about art. Mise en abyme to oblivion. The themes touch and interlock, but they never take full flesh.

Scenes dissolve as the cube spins and the mechanics of the process are made visible. There’s no attempt to entirely hide the stagecraft behind the show. Wires are visible, suspending performer Marc Labreche over a blanket of stars as he pretends to be Cocteau. Wellesley Robertson III as Davis tips and tumbles around the semi-cube, trumpet in hand, caught in trips of opium or improvisation or love. So every time a new scene is set it’s all the more magical, because we’ve seen it get built out of nothing. Out of light, and a prop or two, and ghostly stagehands.

The visual necromancy is pure joy; its smiles and puzzled faces and gasps. But it’s cut through with melancholy jazz washes that drown the stage, the blues of living and living singly. The yearning of addiction, the yearning to break free from it and the struggle between those two desires. Three men hearing the heavy sound of one-sided conversations and trying to cope with the silence that follows.

Needles and Opium is on until 16th July 2016. Click here for more information. 


Tim Bano

Tim is a freelance arts writer and theatre critic. He writes regularly for Time Out, The Stage and other publications. He is co-creator of Pursued By A Bear, Exeunt Magazine's theatre podcast.

Review: Needles and Opium at the Barbican Show Info

Directed by Robert LePage

Written by Robert LePage

Cast includes Marc Labreche, Wellesley Robertson III



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