The Encounter, Complicite/Simon McBurney, HOME, March 17th 2016
In 1969, the National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre travels deep into the Amazon rainforest, alone, to find and document the Mayoruna people, a nomadic tribe who, in 1969, have had barely any contact with the rest of the world. In his eagerness to document them, Loren follows them through the rainforest, and finds himself lost and reliant on their hospitality. His encounter with the Mayoruna tests everything he thought he knew about the boundaries separating the self from the world: telepathic communication with the group’s leader, the intoxicating liquid of unidentified forest fruits, and the near-total collapse of time and subjectivity in the Mayoruna ceremony they describe as ‘the return to the Beginning’.
In the middle of the stage sits an uncannily life-size representation of a human head, decapitated, hovering at head-height on a black pole. This is a binaural microphone, which allow sound to be recorded in three dimensions and transmitted to the headphones each member of the audience is wearing. If this is a totem to the strange and extraordinary capacity of technology, The Encounter employs the sudden intimacy it creates to explore the strangeness of the relationship between our bodies and our selves. For all its impressive technology, the show demonstrates the playful resourceful that has been a hallmark of the best British devised theatre over the past two or three decades. McBurney recreates the aural landscape of the rainforest using his body and a loop pedal; a bottle of water becomes the Amazon; someone blowing into a paper cone, played out of a cheap USB speaker, becomes a mosquito. These multiple layers of sound and recordings are enlisted in the service of McBurney’s preoccupation here with temporality and narrative, and times and places fade in and out of focus.
The Encounter is also a meditation on storytelling, on the stage as well as in the narratives we use to make sense of life and time. The performance is punctuated with recorded interactions between McBurney, working on the show at his desk in his London home, and his six year-old daughter asking for a story or a snack; McBurney ponders the role our camera phones play in documenting and shaping the stories we tell about the past. This could come across as tired and glib, but in McBurney’s hands it blends seamlessly into a performance which avoids offering moral judgements. The ways we relate to technology and possessions are constantly swirling around close to the surface of this show, from the Mayoruna belief that possessions must be destroyed so that we can be released and return to the Beginning, to the totem-like binaural microphone which marks the centre of the stage, hearing everything.
McBurney seems careful to avoid Western stereotypes about the barbarity or exoticism of uncontacted tribes, and we see Loren quickly shedding his sense of detached American superiority as he loses his bearings, his camera, and, eventually, his own sense of self. After his final bow (accompanied by a standing ovation from tonight’s audience) McBurney tells us about his own trip to meet the Mayoruna in Brazil to research the show. Did they have any messages to pass onto his audiences back home, he asked. “Tell them: we exist.”
This is an extraordinary performance, tackling nearly all of time and space through just one performer and a few microphones, questioning what we think we know about how we relate to our senses, our selves, our histories, and the narratives we use to shape and make sense of it all. McBurney makes a physically and emotionally demanding show look effortless. In spite of its innovative play with performance technology, The Encounter really boils down to one man, a near-empty stage, and an audience: this is a master class in the incredible things that can be achieved in the space we create between each other when we tell stories.