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Brighton Festival 2016

The Encounter

Simon McBurney/ Complicite

Genre: Storytelling, Theatre

Venue: Attenborough Centre For Creative Arts


Low Down

An immersive solo show about a photographer lost in the Amazon jungle is a tour de force by Complicite founder Simon McBurney. Mind-altering.


To call Simon McBurney’s solo exploration of sound, time and being lost in the Amazon jungle immersive would be an understatement. Using 3-D sound (audience members wear headphones) the Complicite founder irresistibly shows us how suggestible we are to sound technology and illusion. Yes, our ear did feel like it was heating up when he appeared to be blowing into it, and he constantly fooled us with his own voice and recordings of it so that we never knew when he was talking or just using playback.

Is it now or in the past? That is the question McBurney is asking: how much is our sense of time an illusion?  To answer this metaphysical conundrum he takes us on an incredible journey based on the experience of US photographer Loren McIntyre, who found himself lost deep in the Amazon in 1969, where the titular encounter occurred. McBurney begins as himself at home looking after his only child – using charming recordings of his real daughter – and then becomes McIntyre.

Found by a tribe of ‘undiscovered’ Mayoruna people, initially his obsession is to get the unique photograph of these unseen tribespeople. But gradually his Western world anxieties and pursuit of fame back home become less and less important. He is able to communicate with a tribal elder nicknamed Barnacle using the ‘old language’ – some kind of ancient telepathy. Barnacle helps him but soon he is lost due to imbibing various natural and tribe-made narcotics. He is drawn into the tribe’s apparently non-rational attempt to fall out of time and return to a golden age before the white man came in search of oil, bringing death in his wake.

McBurney’s creates his own magic using sound and lighting of the upstage wall, to evoke patterns of rainfall, fire, and a kind of breathing liquid as we fall through to the next dimension, where time and space collapse as McIntyre and the tribe return to their hallowed ‘beginning’.

When the tribe begin to destroy everything they own as they enact the end-time, MacIntyre acts out a frenzied, somewhat comic moment of on stage destruction, imagining a similar bonfire of consumerism back home, on the lawns of Washington, before shouting: “It’s no good – there’s too much stuff!”

Of course, this is not just a bad trip, it’s a parable of how indigenous people are under threat but also, through their intimacy with the natural world, remind us that we are unmoored in a world of plastic things. Like a long and powerful mind trip, at times it is hard to concentrate and keep up with the occasionally wordy script, but we do walk away with a palpable sense of having left the comfortable certainties of our world and glimpsed another ancient one that is fast disappearing.

I have never experienced a show quite like this, where one man can take you on a journey straight into the heart of darkness through performance and sound, it was a mastery rarely felt on stage.

The use of technology in this production was so sophisticated that it achieved a state of being as organic as the jungle we entered. We heard the leaves underfoot, even though we could see the actor walk on plastic, we felt the river, even though we saw the plastic bottles, we were duped many times and looked behind us as a door opened, even though we were introduced to the amazing powers of surround sound.

Like the technology, we weren’t aware of the writing as a script- it was simply someone talking to us, before we knew it we were in the depths of a story and like children we were lost there.

For this show Simon Mucburney actually went and lived in the Amazon with a tribe, his passion for their way of living and that their lives and ways should be protected was clearly a guiding light in the making of the ground-breaking show which gave more visceral an insight into the tribal life of the Amazon than any documentary or national geographic article.

At the heart of it all is McBurney, unassuming, yet hugely charismatic, filling the auditorium with a kinetic energy that you experience as intensely as the soundscape he has created between your ears.