Encounters - Rachel Halliburton meets the nomadic intellect behind the theatre of Complicite
Simon McBurney has one of the most well-travelled imaginations in British theatre. In recent years, he has contemplated vanished elephants in Japan, a 5,000-year-old body in the southern Tyrol, and a man singing Shostakovich in space. His nomadic intellect has proved intrinsic to the spirit of Complicite, a company used to its productions being heralded as theatrical dynamite. More than 21 years after the company's foundation, it remains very hard to predict which part of the globe will next provide inspiration.
It is therefore striking, when I meet McBurney in London's Century Club, how restless he also is in person. His hands dive in and out of his hair as he talks - at one stage making it stick up in three points. This might be more distracting if his conversation weren't such a roller-coaster ride, taking in corsets, bodies at Dunkirk, Isadora Duncan, an unhappy trip to Iceland and arson. The director Stephen Daldry has described McBurney as "one of the dozen or so most important theatre directors working anywhere in the world", but success has not taken the edge off his search for new creative stimulation.
"With every show, the moment I've done it, I'm dissatisfied," he says. "Because I think: 'Oh shit, there's something else I want to do.' One of the problems with theatre - and especially theatre in this country - is that when you've put one production on, people say: 'That's wonderful. Can you do something else like it?' Yet you make terrible mistakes when you simply try to repeat something. I'm less interested in trying to fulfil expectations than in constantly trying to wrong-foot people. Then you can actually disturb audiences into thinking about what you're doing."
In both art and life, McBurney has played the rebel more spectacularly than most. He talks about his unhappiness as a child, when he was despatched to Marlborough College. "I was asked to make an early exit," he confesses. Why? Was he expelled? "Oh, it was all rather more gentlemanly than that. I burned down a building while I was there, which was not the best . . ." his voice trails off.
McBurney was speedily sent to Cambridge Tech, where he achieved A-level grades good enough to get him into Cambridge University. Before he began there, however, he took a year off, hitch-hiking around America and eventually spending three months in the Arctic. "I felt more at home there than I did at school. I met Inuit boys my age, and we would go off and spend all night fishing and shooting."
At Cambridge, McBurney continued to feel his imagination constrained by British insularity. "I've never known really what culture I belong to," he says. "I don't understand this culture; it seems to be static - fossilised in some way. It doesn't have the same sort of electricity as when I went to the US in the 1970s, or when I've been on tour in Chile. Even when I went to visit my brother in the Soviet Union, we'd do things like go and watch an illegal piece of theatre in a cellar under somebody's house. And I'd be thinking: 'My God, they really know what they're talking about here. This is vital. This is mainlining into people's veins.'"
How do you mainline into the veins of British audiences? McBurney found the answer in France, when he trained with the mime gurus Jacques Lecoq and Philippe Gaulier. At a point when British theatre seemed unlikely to break free from text, McBurney discovered that the body could be a potent form of communication. This physical language demanded that he re-examine his perspective on the world. "We were obliged to re-engage with life, to look and say: what is it that you see? Now how do you transpose that into theatre?"
Arguably, Complicite has survived so long because it continually re-engages with life - stripping every experience to its bare conceptual bones and fleshing it out as theatre. When McBurney founded the company with Annabel Arden (a kindred spirit from his Cambridge days) and fellow Lecoq graduates Fiona Gordon and Marcello Magni, this approach translated most naturally into comedy. In 1985, they won the Perrier Award for More Bigger Snacks Now. But comedy was just one way of throwing new light on the world. Again it was by looking abroad that McBurney found he could truly spread his wings. The anarchic Swiss writer Fried-rich Durrenmatt provided inspiration for The Visit in 1989, and subsequent important creative sources have included the Italian commedia dell'arte writer Ruzzante (Help! I'm Alive), the Russian satirist Daniil Kharms (Out of a House Walked a Man) and the Polish writer Bruno Schulz (The Street of Crocodiles).
Now McBurney is revisiting Compli-cite's second-ever show, A Minute Too Late, which deals with that most foreign experience of all - death. The production, he says, marks "a time to draw breath", to work out where the company will head next. "I think it's maybe amusing for people to see where it all came from," he smiles. "And it's a kind of provocation for me to think that maybe it's the end of something and the beginning of something else."
A Minute Too Late is at the National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000) from 20 January to 26 February