Director and Performer: Simon McBurney
To have your head filled with rich visuals of things you did not see as you exit a theatre is a unique experience. To do this as you close your laptop after streaming the play, is something remarkable. Complicité’s award-winning production The Encounter was made available to watch at home last night. A feat of creativity, the show uses binaural sound (headphones must be worn) to create a wholly immersive journey which starts and ends with questions of reality, time, space, consciousness, and even our own identity construction.
With its focus on the immediacy of individual connection to the stage, the show is perfect for isolated video streaming. Since its first foray into digital theatre, The Encounter has had over 88,000 streams. To watch their latest video would have been a joy anyway, but the production team edit and add for the current climate, exemplifying their continuous innovation.
The stream starts like many others: the camera pans the muttering audience and the empty stage. But fulfilment of our expectations ends here. A voice fills the room requesting a headphone test. An audience member turns and reveals himself to be the director and solo performer Simon McBurney. He welcomes us to the 2016 live stream at the Barbican Theatre – stirring, but comfortable. But then, standing, he says “I think particularly in these days we have to be very careful about believing what we see and hear because, in fact,” it is May 2020 and we are in the middle of global pandemic. Pulling from the corner of the screen, the curtain of audience members is drawn to reveal his living room. This layering and muddling of time, space, and reality is as sensationally bewildering throughout the production.
The Encounter is adapted from Petru Popescu’s novel Amazon Beaming. It follows the story of real life National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre, who in 1969 became lost in the Javari Valley in Brazil among the Mayoruna people. McIntyre soon begins to lose his sense of identity and belief in Western knowledge systems; discovering through the Mayoruna that time and consciousness are shifting.
Narrative is luminously mirrored in form. McBurney disorders linear time; his present voice layered, and even conversing with past recordings of others and himself at home talking to his young daughter. Using the microphone shaped like a – and mirroring our own – head, he also plays with traditional perceptions of space – “Here I am in the middle of your head instead of shouting at you.” As McIntyre is enlightened, so too are the audience. Can we remove ourselves from perceived systems of time? Can we enter spaces we thought impenetrable?
Tony Award-winning Sound Designer Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin create this dense soundscape that is both proximate and dislocating. The technology is theatrically ground-breaking, but McBurney’s performance should not be overlooked; he is tireless and masterful in shaping audience experience.
What is most impressive, is that The Encounter is experimental but wholly accessible. McBurney explains the use of microphones, props and the ideological examinations, but loses none of the affect. To shut your eyes and feel as though you are in the sticky heat and insect swarmed rainforest is one thing. To open them, see McBurney shaking a water bottle or playing bird song from a portable speaker, and your presence there still feels as strong is phenomenal.
Complicité’s innovative storytelling bonds us with past times, other cultures and one other in this present moment. During a period of separation, The Encounter offers a mind-altering insight into new possibilities of interconnection which transcend traditional notions of space and time.
Runs here until 22nd May 2020