Complicité have returned to the Barbican with their extraordinary one man show The Encounter, and nobody can deny that this truly is an astonishing feat of theatre. Simon McBurney, artistic director of the company and director/performer of this show, is a phenomenal talent and likely the only person that could pull this off. An unparalleled piece of audio-visual magic, The Encounter is absolutely unique but still not without its issues.
Based on Petru Popescu’s Amazon Beaming, The Encounter tells the story of Loren McIntyre, a photographer who ventured into the Amazon to document a lost tribe, the Mayoruna. Simultaneously it explores the ideas of consciousness and time, whilst also narrating how the show came to be – a seemingly bizarre choice but woven together so well that the narrative feels a continuous one. I don’t want to get too far into the details of plot as so many of the abstract ideas are explained as they occur, plus half the joy of this show is how beautifully and unexpectedly it unravels, and I wouldn’t like to spoil that for anyone yet to see it. In essence, McIntyre arrives to photograph the tribe but soon after loses his camera and is left to spend the rest of the time living with the Mayoruna, returning an entirely changed person. I’ll get onto my difficulties with this later.
“an astonishing feat of theatre”
Whilst there is only one man on stage, it is far from a solo effort. To experience The Encounter, one must wear headphones for the duration of the performance, creating the most glorious immersive effect. As well as the two main characters McBurney plays (himself and McIntyre), he’s joined by well over ten other voices, including Marcus du Sautoy (who explains time), Petru Popescu (the author) and his young daughter (who interrupts him a lot). On stage he is joined by a binaural head (a 360-degree microphone), which he engages with to the extent one can’t help but believe it’s really a person, plus other set dressings which help to create the various environments he toys with. In the tech box are wizards. I mean, truly, the experience they manage to create through headphones and lighting is unbelievable. Initially I doubted whether this needed to be on a stage rather than simply a radio, but it is so much more than voices in your head.
The energy of this show must also be noted, especially considering its two hour runtime in the Barbican’s phenomenally uncomfortable chairs. McBurney and his team lull you into the show with an almost stand-up routine at the beginning, slowly building the world and explaining to you exactly how the show is created, from describing the functions of the headphones and microphone to you and revealing the tricks of the props, to calling it an illusion, questioning whether anything is real. Much like that scene in Mulholland Drive, within seconds one buys into said illusion, enjoying the beauty rather than debating its worth. There’s a particular moment in the play which breaks from 1969 to 2018 with such potent force that I wanted to leap up on stage and join this revolution of destruction that I did debate whether I’d be rushed by an usher were I to try (again, I’m not going to reveal the details).
At this point I wish to return to my difficulties with the show. The Encounter is based on a relatively recently written book about an experience from 1969, so naturally is going to have some hangover attitudes of the past towards things. Some of these can be forgiven on the grounds that the story is about Loren McIntyre entering the Mayoruna tribe rather than of the Mayoruna tribe themselves, and as such, is going to be from his perspective. However, in the overall feeling of the play, there is too much of the ‘noble savage’ about this tribe with the interpretation of the story maintaining this attitude, rather than being marked as a 1969 viewpoint. Too often the way the Mayoruna live their lives is romanticised, is considered greater by the nature that they have less but feel more. Considering a large portion of the show is dedicated to how the piece was created, and McBurney speaks to us in his own voice, he had a multitude of opportunities to eschew this opinion; instead he reaffirms it. Whilst McBurney ends the piece by recounting his own visit to the Mayoruna people who asked their story be told, The Encounter is inherently a tale of an American photographer who goes to visit a ‘lost tribe’ and is forever changed by his experience living amongst them (against the will of some).
Whilst this issue does stay with me, I do not wish to detract from the technical or performative genius of this undeniable marvel of theatre unlike any other. What Complicité have achieved is remarkable, and I’m certain they’ll continue to produce theatre of this calibre. But this issue is one that should be acknowledged when viewing The Encounter (and anything else), rather than brushing under the carpet to forgive ‘great art’.
Image: Sarah Ainslie