Review: Needles and Opium (Ex Machina/Canadian Stage)


Canadian Stage presents Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre

In the past few weeks the issue of drug addiction has been at the fore of the news cycle in Toronto. Indeed, the psychotropic misadventures of Mayor Ford have all the trappings of a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s a fitting backdrop for Canadian Stage to present avant-garde Quebec theatre director Robert Lepage’s revival of his play Needles and Opium; a meditation on addiction and dependency.

Lepage has a reputation of being something of a theatre wizard; he’s known for his use of  technology and avant-garde techniques to tell stories on stage. Lepage has revived his 1991 breakout show, Needles and Opium, creating a new production with a stunning new staging concept that’s full of his trademark visual style.

Set designer Carl Fillion’s work is jaw dropping. The show takes place on a set that’s three sides of a large cube on a mechanical support that’s able to tilt and rotate the cube to create a seemingly endless array of configurations. The visual palette of the scene is filled in by Lionel Arnould’s image designs and Thomas Payette’s videos which are projected onto the three walls of the cube throughout the entire production.

The show features a staggering amount of automated cues. While the whole production sounds a bit complex and unwieldy the resulting effect is actually very fluid and graceful. As the cube shifts and rotates it creates perspectives the audience isn’t used to seeing; all of the sudden we’re looking at the scene from above. The projections allow scenes to blend into one another. The effect is visually striking and poetic, it’s all very cinematic.

The story is roughly sketched out in scenes and visual sequences. It weaves between three parallel narratives and invites us to draw our own comparisons.

We meet Parisian poet/filmmaker Jean Cocteau on a plane over the Atlantic as he flies back from his first visit to New York City in 1949. At the same time we witness American jazz legend Miles Davis during his first trip to Paris. Fast-forward to present day and we meet a Québecois theatre artist in his hotel room in Paris as he deals with his heartbreak after recently ending a long term relationship.

The three stories centre on the themes of addiction and withdrawal; Cocteau was addicted to opium, Davis to heroine and the Québecois to love.

Actor Mark Labrèche reprises his dual role of Cocteau and the Québecois from the original production 20 years ago. Labrèche has a remarkable range and ability to deliver both the humour and more introspective, heartfelt moments the script requires. He is joined by Wellesley Robertson III who delivers a surprisingly sensitive performance in the (silent) role of Miles Davis.

While the effects are stunning the pace is languid and at times I thought the show could benefit from some tightening. Regardless, the show is a sensuous visual and aural experience; the strains of Miles Davis infused throughout the show and the grainy images projected onto the set often lend the production something close to a noir feel.

While I’ve seen several of Lepage’s shows in the past and am increasingly familiar with his bag of theatrical tricks, he’s still able to weave his spell on me. I thought Needles and Opium was beautiful, poetic and cinematic.


  • Needles and Opium is playing from November 22 – December 1, 2013 at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts’ Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front Street E. in Toronto.
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.
  • Tickets $24 – $99
  • Tickets are available in person at the venue box office, by phone at 416-368-3110 or online at

Photo of Marc Labrèche by Nicola-Frank Vachon.