DramaNorth WestReview

The Encounter – HOME, Manchester

Writer/Director: Simon McBurney
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie


Simon McBurney may be the only actor on the stage, but this is very much more than a one-man-show. The use of 3D audio technology to create an immersive world of sonic landscapes takes the audience on a journey deep into the Amazon jungle and deep into the consciousness of the main character. The experience is awe-inducing, but introduced so casually as to disarm. McBurney strolls on stage and introduces us to the headphones we must wear throughout the performance, and explains some of the trickery with which he will distort our relationship with reality. And then he does so, to pin-dropping effect.

McBurney takes his storyline from the book Amazon Beaming by Romanian author Petru Popescu. The novel recounts the true story of Loren McIntyre, a photographer who makes contact with the Mayoruna ‘cat people’ of the Amazon’s Javari Valley. Following them into the depths of the forest he becomes lost, literally and in almost every other sense. His perceptions of the strange world around him become warped, and he begins an intense non-verbal communication with the tribal headman, who he christens Barnacle. As the nomadic tribe undertake their journey through the rain forest, McIntyre undertakes a journey of his own, in space, time, and memory.

McBurney’s performance is mesmerising. He is alternately the creator of the piece – conversing with his young daughter as she interrupts his work regime, the narrator of the story of McIntryre’s ordeal in the forest, and McIntyre himself, lost, frightened and fascinated as this alien culture strips away the sense of his own identity. In his programme notes McBurney writes: “The story is not the show. It is not even the performance that is the show. The show is made in the minds of the audience.” And his infiltration of our heads (through headphones) takes him past the mechanisms that normalise our experience of the world; takes him across the gap between reality, and the story we make of it. So this is also an exploration of consciousness.

Which makes it all sound very theoretical, rather than theatrical. It isn’t. While the story may be induced and enhanced by the technology, it relies utterly on the relationship McBurney establishes with the audience. The sophistication of the sound system may bring his breath into our ears, but his credibility keeps us locked into his experiences as the story zig-zags through space and time. Sound Operators Helen Skiera and Ella Wahlstrom deserve their credits, for the stunning aural support matrix they provide, as does Paul Anderson for the lighting, but McBurney fully earned the standing ovation he received.

Loren McIntyre’s experience in the Brazilian rain forest dates back to 1969, two years after the Beatles took their own psychedelic trip aboard the Magical Mystery Tour. Others were also experimenting with hallucinogenic substances at the time, including Aldous Huxley in “The Doors of Perception”. There were flashbacks to this mind-expanding era throughout the show, but they do not lock it to a moment in history. Rather they provide a bedrock for an awareness of other related issues, including conservation and exploitation of natural resources. At times the montage of new age ideas melded with the cacophony of sounds and voices in our headphones to disorientating effect.

The psychedelic haze of the late 60’s may hang in the forest mists drifting across the stage, and Pete Townsend’s guitar smashing was reincarnated in McBurney’s destruction of the set, but a stronger influence may well have been Edwardian icon, E.M. Forster. The script echoed the instruction from “Howard’s End” that we should “Only connect”. McBurney and his Complicite colleagues certainly connected with their Manchester audience. Hear hear!

Runs until 19 March 2016. | Photo: Robbie Jack

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