Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - Septermber 29, 2016
The Complicite Production of The Encounter, inspired by the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu. Conceived, directed and performed by Simon McBurney. Co-directed by Kirsty Housley. Performed by Richard Katz at certain performances. Scenic design by Michael Levine. Sound design by Gareth Fry & Pete Malkin. Lighting design by Paul Anderson. Projection design by Will Duke.
This may sound like hyperbole, but the Complicite production, which was conceived and directed (with Kirsty Housley) by its sole actor, Simon McBurney, and was previously performed at the Barbican in London last season, really is all this and more. And what makes it more amazing still is that McBurney has crafted all thisto say nothing of a compelling storyentirely with sound. Oh, there's technically a physical set, which Michael Levine has cannily designed to resemble the inside of a recording studio, or maybe an anechoic chamber, and it makes a few eye-popping metamorphoses of its own (with the help of Paul Anderson's lacerating lighting and Will Duke's vivid projections ). But it's not what you'll stumble away remembering.
That would be the astonishing sound design by Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin, who use a trio of microphones (including a binaural head) to play games with time, space, and thought you probably never thought possible. Echoes repeat and sustain themselves into infinity. Seemingly random noises layer into gorgeous but chilling tapestries outlining entire ecosystems. The British McBurney, simply by angling his head, can conjure an electronic American voice that rings utterly natural. Words transform into memory, which in turn become a wholly different reality, which is itself then subject to McBurney's tiniest whims. And if he wants you to become hot, cold, or despairing, or to escort you to the brink of death, he'll stand in exactly the right place and unleash his utterance in just the right way to ensure you're helpless in his hands. It really is all this precise.
Perhaps the most arresting facet of this towering accomplishment is that it all feels as though it's been created just for you. Delivered as it is through a headset you're provided upon taking your seat, the soundscape is intensely intimate, which only makes the shivers cut deeper. That's critical, as the tale itself demands that same sense of isolation. It's based on Petru Popescu's book Amazon Beaming, which chronicles photojournalist Loren McIntyre's unwilling journey to the heart of the Brazilian jungle, where he meets the Mayoruna tribe, and along the way (while skirting myriad brushes with certain demise) discovers considerably more sobering truths about both himself and the world he inhabits.
In a way, though, you have. Eventually, even the tangibility of the stage gets wrapped up in the adventure, with chip bags, miles of unspooled VHS tape, and other such props carving out new avenues that McBurney then uses to drive you further into the wilderness. And when McBurney tries to regain controla gloriously fruitless pursuit if ever there was oneall he does is invite in additional chaos. Sooner or later, and for better or worse, everything oozes out of our control. (Not coincidentally, this is also a key moral of the play.)
Watching (and hearing) it all occur in real time is riveting, as much because of the eternally playful and resourceful McBurney as the soundboth are remarkable, undeniably theatrical beasts that thrive on the energy of those around them, and happily welcome you to give it back to them in the form of your undivided attention. (Not that you could divide it if you wanted to.) It hardly matters, then, that you don't quite get the impression that a more general adaptation of Popescu's writing would be as mesmerizing under other circumstances. This is all about fusing content with form until they're indistinguishable, and it's unthinkable that anyone could achieve that more completely through any other means.
This was driven home for me during The Encounter whenI'm ashamed to admit thisI took off the headset for a couple of seconds so I could compare the experiences. There is no comparison. Being jolted from the jungle into a dead-silent auditorium was enough to induce whiplash, and realizing that the menagerie of millions I was hearing and feeling was, in fact, just the work of one man in front of me and his mastermind collaborators behind the scenes struck me as a violation of a sacred trust: that, if I gave myself over completely to the illusion, it would become the most real thing in the world. I wanted to be transported back to that newly constructed universe where McBurney was conducting me through McIntyre's unique hell, but letting me know, through his sorcery, that it would ultimately be all right.
As soon as I replaced the headphones, it was. This is theatre so pure, it doesn't need sets. But in eschewing them, The Encounter gets them as no other show ever hasand oh so much more, too.