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

Needles and Opium Marc Labrèche

Canadian Stage brings theatre wizard Robert Lepage’s play Needles and Opium back to Toronto

Written and directed by Robert Lepage, Needles and Opium will startle your senses at Toronto’s Bluma Appel Theatre. Jazz, light and movement make the stories of heartbreak, addiction and cultural discovery come to life.

I’ve never seen such a set. The action takes place not on the stage, but in the air. A three-sided cube turns intermittently. This mobile stage, through light, projected images and changing props, becomes a recording studio, hotel room, pawn shop and other settings. Ground-breaking.

We get glimpses of the lives of three people in two different time periods: a Québecois actor named Robert (Marc Labrèche) from the 1990s, as well as Miles Davis (Wellesley Robertson III) and French poet Jean Cocteau (Labrèche) from 40 years earlier.

Robert suffers from heartbreak, and much of the play was about his inability to move on. His sadness was most striking when he called his ex-lover who did not want to be contacted.

In spite of his loss, Robert was downright funny. Hats off to Lepage for bringing us many moments of comic relief. I found myself laughing quite loudly when Robert described his hotel neighbours’ love-making racket, Quebec politics since 1950, interest in hypnotherapy, and many other subjects.

“I failed some courses, so I went into theatre,” he said when asked about how he started his work as an actor. Or “Can I skip some of those steps?” when he described the painful journey of Orpheus. Or to his hypnotherapist, “You helped my friend stop smoking two or three times.” And when he was asked to pronounce Juliette Greco’s name with an American accent, I couldn’t contain myself.

Of all three stories, I found Robert’s struggle to be the most compelling. The other two were a little less interesting to me. I was touched by Miles Davis’s romance with Juliette Greco, I felt bad about his addiction, and I watched him work on Louis Malle’s film in awe. The music transported me. Robertson’s wordless portrayal of Davis was fine, but I felt that he needed a bit more presence. As for the Cocteau story, it wasn’t particularly memorable for me. I enjoyed watching this character float around — his parts were always visually interesting — but I personally didn’t feel much emotion other than admiration for Labrèche’s acrobatic skills.

Needles and Opium won’t satisfy your expectations of a normal play in which actors walk on a non-moving stage and the linear A to Z plot consists of a conflict that needs resolution. Instead, Lepage and his crew have given us a visual and aural experience. The evening was like being at theatre, cinema, art gallery and concert hall, all for one price.

If you want to see something original that you can talk about for hours, don’t miss it. If you’re a beginner theatre-goer who wants to “get” everything, I’d stick to something less “weird”.


  • Needles and Opium is playing at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts (27 Front St. E.)
  • Performances run Tuesday through Sunday at 8 p.m. with Friday shows beginning at 7 p.m. and matinees on Wednesdays and Sundays beginning at 1 p.m.
  • The performance is approximately 95 minutes without intermission.
  • Ticket prices range from $24 to $99.
  • Tickets can be purchased online, by phone at 416-368-3110 or in person at the box office.

Photo of Marc Labrèche by Nicola Frank Vachon