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1 March 2016

Is Simon McBurney’s The Encounter the future of theatre?

Come on a head trip into the depths of the Amazon rainforest.

By India Bourke

“Some of us here are friends”, a voice whispers into your ear, so close you think you can feel the hairs inside curl. The voice is enveloping, other-worldly, cryptic – and not a little malign? 

Simon McBurney’s latest one-man play, a head trip into the depths of the Amazon rainforest, is characteristically ineffable. And is intent on getting under your skin.

At the start of the performance, each audience member inside the Barbican (or at home if you watch the free livestream at 7.30pm tonight) dons a set of headphones. The “binaural” sound-system then allows a cast of voices, both live and pre-recorded, to “walk around your brain”.

The process has been hailed as “astonishing”; the latest “feat” of stage and sound design. But McBurney, deviously facetious, contends that “theatre makers have always been charlatans and thieves and liars and conmen”. And that the play is “nothing to do with the sound-scape!”

Any new technology, he explains, like video and limelight before it, should always be at home on stage.

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“As soon as a new tool is here it shouldn’t only be in the hands of financiers and the corporate world,” he says. “It should also be in the hands of artists; appropriating it, bastardising it, scavenging off it.”

And who better to lead the charge than McBurney – actor, auteur, thorny house-elf, and director of Complicite, arguably Britain’s most influential theatre company.

His Barbican dressing room, in which we meet, is characteristically spartan. Two scribbled drawings from his daughter are pinned above the mirror and a plastic wall-clock rests, inscrutably, on the floor. 

His costume – jeans and a grey T-shirt – hang neatly in the wardrobe. And look almost regal compared to the ripped and stained outfit he’s wearing as he makes his entrance: late, frenetic and wheeling his bike as if just landed from Oz.

On stage, there is barely anything further to reveal. Yet with little more than a few free-standing microphones, a table, a rustling crisp packet, and the imagination’s lust for connection, McBurney will transport the audience deep into the most diverse place on the planet.

“This is a water-bottle,” he says, picking up a plastic bottle, locking you in with his gaze, and starting to shake it, “But now it is a river, it is a narrative. Because I choose to make it so.”

The story he conjures is based around the American photographer, Loren McIntyre, and his encounter with the Mayoruna, an un-contacted Amazonian tribe – as recorded in the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu. The tribe’s desire to avoid the “white-man’s oil-lust, and alcohol, and guns” leads them all on a mind and body altering search for the “Beginning”.

A careful crafting of sound and light dilute the membranes between the worlds of theatre, rave, and tribal drug-trip. There are rituals and riots and veering into telepathy. But woe-betide anyone who mistakes representation for recommendation.

When I mention a critic’s description of the play as “Rousseauian”, with its implied praise of the noble savage, I’m met with McBurney’s most Kreatcher-esque snarl: “Has he [the critic] even read Rousseau? Has he read him in French?! Its absolutely not saying that tribal life is better than ours – that is not the point.” 

Singular, conclusive perspectives are posion to McBurney. “What is interesting for me is the way we think; the multiplicity of views that exist and the brain’s ability to stand back and observe ourselves.” 

Not least, how we think about our relationship to the natural world. “These questions are ever-more urgent when it comes to questions of fossil fuels, or of climate change” he stresses. “We need to address the fact that the narrative of mass consumer capitalism is fundamentally not working. Our future depends on whether we can think in a different way.”

In McBurney’s work both past and future are always intensely personal. So much so that the recorded voice of his daughter becomes the play’s own on-stage muse. With this he pays tribute to the distance-defying ties forged between the Chief and McIntyre, then McIntyre and Popescu, and then with McBurney himself, who last year visited the Mayaruna in person. 

The performance may make use of the very latest in sound-design to get close to its audience, but its aim in doing so is as old as theatre itself.  

At the end of the play McBurney reads his daughter a bedtime story, just as his father, an empirically-minded archeologist, used to do before him. What would his father have thought of the play? I ask “I think he would have been fascinated and somewhat surprised”, McBurney responds. “And I hope he would have been touched.”

You can watch the play live at 7.30pm, on Tuesday 1st March, through the Complicite website:

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