A few minutes into The Encounter, you will feel a man breathing against the back of your neck. Resist the urge to turn around. It’s not an overeager theatre-goer, but Complicite’s artistic director Simon McBurney.
“There’s a very close relationship between empathy and proximity,” McBurney explains, as he asks the audience to don the headphones they will wear for the entirety of the show. “I’m going to get a bit closer to you all now.”
For two heady, hypnotic hours, McBurney narrates directly into the audience’s ears, while creating the Amazon rainforest through a mixture of live and pre-recorded sound.
Complicite were last at the Barbican in 2013, with their dizzyingly ambitious take on Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. It was praised for its virtuosity, invention and technological flair, but left more than one critic feeling empty-hearted; there was, for some, a lack of intimacy.
Three years later, McBurney – one of modern theatre’s great magicians – has stepped out from behind the curtain to reveal the secrets of Oz. A hit at last summer’s Edinburgh International Festival, The Encounter is Brecht for the 21st century. The house lights remain up as he crosses the bare stage, patiently introducing his toolkit – a table, four microphones, loop- and distortion-pedals, some water. With these, he will “take a walk across the 2.6 pounds of electrified pate that we call the brain.”
The plot, when it arrives, is perhaps the least interesting thing in the show. Drawn from Petru Popescu’s inspired-by-true-events novel Amazon Beaming, it’s a rebooted Heart of Darkness that wears its post-colonial message heavily. Our photojournalist hero dreams not of ivory, but of a National Geographic front-page.
When we meet him, Loren McIntyre has been snapping the jungle for 25 years, and has recently become fixated on tracking down the elusive Mayoruna, or “cat people”. He discovers a Mayoruna village, he tries the local hallucinogenics and befriends the tribe’s chief – with whom he learns to communicate, through a kind of telepathy. McBurney is utterly compelling as the gravel-voiced American photographer, lending credibility to his shamanistic awakening.
Eight years in the making, The Encounter has been a labour of love for the writer-performer-director, and at times almost drowns under the weight of its source material. Interviews with Popescu, conversations with psychologists and sociologists, the musings of McBurney’s six-year-old daughter – countless voices rise up from the darkness as a kind of dream sequence, whenever McIntyre loses consciousness.
It should be a mess, but becomes instead a powerful symbol of the modern world that McIntyre seeks to leave behind, a world overloaded with information and material goods. Despite its reliance on electronics, The Encounter is deeply ambivalent about modern life.
Possessions, the Mayoruna believe, hold us back in time: they destroy their own in a communal bonfire. Photographs, those frozen moments of the past, carry an even greater weight. Tellingly, the show’s emotional climax centres on McBurney’s relationship with his camera-phone.
Closer to live radio-drama than to theatre, The Encounter is unlike anything else on the London stage. It will divide audiences, but for those who can get on board with its psychedelic eco-philosophy and Brecht-tech trappings, it’s an unmissable trip.
by Tristram Fane Saunders
All photographs: Robbie Jack
The full run of The Encounter is already sold out, but on Tuesday March 1 at 7.30pm GMT, it will be streamed live from The Barbican, London, via Complicite’s website and Youtube channel
The Encounter is at The Barbican, Barbican Centre, Silk Street London EC2Y 8DS until March 6
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