Features Published 23 May 2020

Revisiting The Encounter

Holly Williams loops back to Simon McBurney’s time-bending binaural adventure, and asks him what it can say to lockdown audiences.

Holly Williams
The Encounter at the Barbican. Photo: Robbie Jack.

The Encounter at the Barbican. Photo: Robbie Jack.

Revisiting a piece of art can be like time travel. You come face-to-face with your former self in the pages of a book re-opened after years on the shelf, or in an album that whisks you back to a distant summer, a different you. You see how much you’ve changed, or stayed the same, in how differently you relate to it. But we don’t often get the chance to meet our former selves in the theatre: productions are here, and then they’re gone.

Now theatres are delving into their archives, and offering up old hits. To be honest, I find it hard to feel excited about rewatching a recording of show I’ve already seen live. But then along came Complicite’s The Encounter, which is streaming till 25 May.

It’s not its first time online: Complicite was an early-adopter of the home livestream back in in 2016, when it worked with The Space to record a live production to share digitally. Unlike NT Live’s cinema streams, now repurposed as home entertainment, The Encounter’s online version was always intended to be experienced on a laptop, by the solitary viewer wearing headphones. Both live and digitally, the show uses headphones to deliver stunningly intimate binaural surround-sound, which seems to you immerse you in the Amazon rainforest.

“It was fascinating to me that [The Encounter] seemed to work in a way that was not usual for a piece of theatre online,” recalls McBurney, speaking via a Zoom call from his home in Stroud. “Because of the way it’s listened to, the audience can somehow climb inside their machines.”

The sound tech works just as well via ordinary headphones at home as it did in the theatre. Which made it rather more tempting to revisit. But I was also nervous about it.

The Encounter is one of those productions that looms large in my theatregoing life. I saw it at the Edinburgh festival in 2015 – and you know when you come out of an auditorium and you feel slightly tingly, and like there’s more oxygen in your blood than usual? Your brain is racing with ideas, but your body feels like it’s been through something too? Simon McBurney’s one-man show, co-directed by Kirsty Housley, gave me that exhilarated feeling. The memory burns.

It’s based on Petru Popescu’s novel’s, which was based on McIntyre’s own account of his time with the Mayoruna. With their livelihood encroached on by deforestation, the tribe take McIntyre with them as they flee through the Amazon, back to the source of the river – but also back through time, back to “the beginning”. Time as a concept is fictional, it’s suggested; it is not linear. (An ideal show to re-encounter then? Maybe.)

Through a mixture of ritualistic dancing and psychedelic frog juice, McIntyre find himself on a wild, transcendental trip, which profoundly changes his understanding of consciousness: there is no individual ‘I’, but rather a profound interconnectedness, spanning humans and the natural world. He comes to be able to communicate with the Mayoruna telepathically: he can hear the head of the tribe’s voice, inside his own head.

Some people have baulked at this hippie stuff. I bloody love it. My favourite pieces of theatre are often driving, or subtly tilting, at the big mythic, mysteriousness of life. I was relieved when watching the stream to find all that still vibrates.

But Complicite didn’t just reshare because they can: McBurney felt The Encounter might have something to say to us in moment of crisis. That a play about hearing might now be heard differently.

“People were perhaps over-excited by the technological aspects before, whereas the form is absolutely inseparable from its content,” he said.

Still, it is the binaural technology, designed by Gareth Fry, that will hook viewers in. McBurney moves around a head-shaped microphone onstage, which records audio in way that mimics how we hear and then delivers that right into the audience’s ears. If he blows on the right side of the mic, it really feels like he’s blowing on your right ear. If he leaps around it, patting his body (and then looping those sounds), he creates a 3D soundscape of rain falling in a jungle, and it feels like you might be about to get drenched.

This technology can put a voice right inside your head. As if McIntyre’s thoughts are your thoughts. As if when he hears the headsman of the tribe telepathically, you do too.

Of course, watching online is still different; I don’t feel that total body exhilaration, from sharing a physical space with the performer and the audience. Hairs don’t stand on end. But it still sounds amazing: uncannily intimate, a total immersion.

And the point for McBurney is that the tech was always more than a gimmick. “It’s trying to get right inside your head so that you ask: what is going on inside my head, whose experience am I part of?” McBurney said. Giving us an experience of interconnectedness, of collective consciousness, may be seen as merely a fun fiction by a lot of audiences – but McBurney is serious about this stuff. And he thinks it’s more relevant than ever.

The notion of the Western “I”, the individual consciousness, is a damaging concept, he believes. “The story that we are separated from one another is a story we’ve become more and more convinced of. We have been infected by that story. I’m not sure we are really separate.” From each other, or from the natural world.

Now, in a time of enforced isolation and separation, paradoxically many of us may be feeling more interconnected than ever. We realise how much we value our links with other people, but also – on more urgent, political level – how reliant we all are on one another, whether that’s getting your neighbour’s shopping or praying global pharmaceutical companies work together on a vaccine. Even Boris Johnson is now insisting that there is such a thing as a society.

The Encounter is concerned with stories – what narratives take hold, who we listen to, and whether there might be other ways to hear each other. McBurney begins the show by sharing his own thoughts on consciousness and storytelling; he shows us the methods he’ll use to tell this one, how the recording works, how he creates different sound effects. (That’s another reason I loved it – total sucker for work that shows you the tricks of theatre, and then makes you believe in it anyway.) It’s not trying to help us believe McIntyre’s journey is happening; it’s inviting use to listen to a story about listening.

“It did seem that a piece which is about listening was appropriate right now because that’s a huge question both within us and in society: how do we listen to each other? And how does one society or culture listen to another? And is it always the dominant status quo, in this case, the new world order of heads of corporations and the very rich – are we now not allowed to listen to anybody else?”

Perhaps, in the midst of these desperate times, we have some cause for hope: we are having to listen to different stories. We’re recognising that we need care workers and binmen and cleaners. Before the pandemic, it’s impossible to imagine NHS fees for migrant workers being overturned by the stories of the lowest paid being shared, and listened to.

But revisiting The Encounter also raises some uneasy questions about who gets to tell this story. Stewart Pringle’s review from 2016 calls the work “an absolutely spectacular and absolutely state-of-the-art framework for one of the oldest colonial narratives”. Here, the Mayoruna’s story is filtered through three white men (McIntyre-Popescu-McBurney). The white man’s journey is the dominant narrative; it can feel like the Mayoruna serve his story, sharing their wisdom to help him.

McBurney is clearly committed to giving a voice to people who would not otherwise have this platform – and at a time when the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, and therefore the habitat of indigenous people within it, is being aggressively pursed for commercial gain by Brazil’s president Bolsonaro, any amplification is surely helpful.

I absolutely buy McBurney’s argument that this genocide and ecocide is another powerful reason for streaming this show, telling this story, right now: “I’m talking to people in the Amazon and they want to have a voice, they want to be heard.”

But it’s also fair to say that in the five years since it was first staged, we’ve become (I’ve become) more aware, more concerned, about how people tell other people’s stories. Given The Encounter is so explicitly grappling with the nature of storytelling, it feels more glaring that McBurney didn’t acknowledge the particular lenses his story is told through, the privileging of certain perspectives. I confess, this was only a niggling whisper of a concern to me when I first saw it; now it feels more insistent.

That’s a thing about revisiting work: Time actually does go forward. We change, the world moves on, but the work remains the same. And so we can be newly troubled by it – as well as rekindling old love, finding new depths, or feeling freshly mined contemporary resonance. We may be able to be transported back to the time when a story is set, and to the time when the story was made – but we also can’t help but remain in our present.

The Encounter is available to watch for free until 10pm on Monday 25th May, on Complicite’s website

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Holly Williams

Holly is an freelance journalist and staff critic for What's on Stage. She was lead arts writer for the Independent on Sunday before its demise, and has since written for Time Out, The Stage, the BBC, The Observer, the TLS, Elle and The Telegraph, among others. She hails from Wales, but lives in London. There's more here: hollywrites.com.

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