The Encounter is outstanding. Remarkable. It has an outer shell of startling technology, the binaural technology FUEL have been experimenting with for the past few years put to such potent and playful use that it makes those early attempts look like the first tentative scrawls of a new artistic tool compared to a fully-fledged, mature masterpiece. Inside this carapace of auditory genius is a very human genius, the brilliant Simon McBurney, at the height of his powers as a performer, a story-teller, a scientist of experience and sensation.
He’s telling a story here, the story of writing a show – his daughter keeps walking in and interrupting – of the technology he’s adopted to do it, and the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu which this show is loosely based on.
That’s a great story too, it punctuates the narrative with vignettes that hook it back to the world and to our current position on a time-stream, and in a culture. And then inside Popescu’s book is the story of the explorer Loren McIntyre.
And inside that story is the story of his encounter with the Mayoruna people. And there, buried inside that, there are the Mayoruna’s own stories, or a version of them. A version which is (deep breath) The Encounter’s presentation of Simon McBurney’s story of the creation of a show about Popescu’s book about McIntyre’s reported memories of the stories of these threatened, almost voiceless people.
And that’s the problem. The Encounter is an absolutely spectacular and absolutely state-of-the-art framework for one of the oldest colonial narratives – the white man’s journey into the unknown. And when all of the technological brilliance and liberal good-intentions are stripped away, there is worryingly little to separate that inner story, that kernel, from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust.
The Mayoruna people are given new names by McIntyre: ‘Barnacle’ for a tribal leader whose legs are encrusted with warty extrusions. No attempt is made to discover his real name. When McIntyre eventually achieves meaningful communication with this man, it is not through a shared improvisation of signs, but via a kind of psychic link that McIntyre intuits has developed between them. It’s very pretty, it’s very poetic, but it is the poetry of the noble savage, it chimes dangerously close to the ‘magical negro’, too. It might just about have passed muster when McIntyre first reported it, was surely verging on the offensive by the time of Popescu’s novel’s publication in 1993, and now looks borderline distasteful.
McIntyre’s narrative, the story of a photographer plunged into the Amazon rainforest and gradually disconnected from his means of independent survival, is also a familiar one. He makes a foolish error, is rendered reliant on the tribe he has come to meet and record; he is captured, confused; he forges alliances; he attempts and achieves communication; he shares improvised spells and hexes; he attempts amateur anthropology and he achieves a drug-fuelled epiphany of the inter-connected nature of all life.
His story is told with a winning wry humour, accompanied by mind-bending optical illusions against a great wall of anechoic foam blocks by Michael Levine, lit hallucinogenically with video projection techniques by Will Duke. The rainforest and its inhabitants, the tribe and its chants and rituals are recreated in the audience’s ears through the absolutely and undeniably masterful manipulation of binaural recordings. Flora brushes past our ears, fauna croaks, growls and chirps, and the whole roaring force of the rainforest is realised with absolute mastery of the form. Deeply evocative, stirring, even frightening. McBurney and his team master the rapid rush of unease as the beautiful flips into the deadly.
Better, even, than McIntyre’s sweeping narrative, is McBurney’s framing device and his bleeding and blending of his own life and experience into the story of the show. Stopping short of a strict documentary approach to the ‘making of’ The Encounter, what McBurney offers is both richer and more diffuse. The story of one man’s search for the source of the Amazon, for a kind of ‘beginning’, becomes a rumination on far more personal and also vaster questions of beginnings and endings, meeting and partings.
The Encounter covers an immense territory. It is at its most convincing and profound when it allows itself to reflect, gently and movingly, on subjects of fatherhood and learning, on the nature of time, and on the artifices of story-telling. But somehow, despite its 2 hour running time, and the eight years of careful construction that have gone into creating the show, it fails to properly tackle the most nagging questions that it raises. McBurney closes his narrative with his responsibility to tell the story of the Mayoruna people, to understand the relevance of McIntyre’s experience to the larger question of rainforest destruction, of acculturation and the weight with which Western liberalism and rampant capitalism can press down on a fragile world, but, despite all of his metatheatrical knowingness and care, he has failed to interrogate his own place within that narrative.
The technology may be state of the art, the heart may be full, honest and true, but the story, and the presumptions it makes about the world – they’re museum pieces. And no piece of theatre this smart can afford to parade them so uncritically. Not any more.
The Encounter is on at the Barbican until 6th March 2016. Click here for tickets.