Dazzling ideas. Brilliant, involving dialogue. Superb, finely calibrated performances that amaze, awe and astound. Concepts and designs that enthrall and evoke real responses, trigger contemplation or action. Theatre that affects you, changes you, makes you consider aspects of the world differently. These are the marks of truly great theatrical endeavour. They are not the marks of Simon Stephens’ Heisenberg but they are the marks of Complicite’s astonishing The Encounter.
Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination…
Those Leslie Briccuse lyrics were rarely out of my thoughts while watching Simon McBurney’s astonishing performance in Complicite’s The Encounter, now playing at the Golden Theatre on Broadway. So too was the phrase made famous by Star Trek : to boldly go where no man has gone before. Because The Encounter ventures into theatrical spaces previously untouched, and imagination and perception, and the interaction of both, is central to the story-telling here.
This is a production which works on many levels. Partly, it is a retelling of a tale inspired by Petru Popescu’s Amazon Beaming, focussing on time spent by photographer and journalist Loren McIntyre in 1969 with the Mayoruna tribe in the jungles of the Amazon. Partly, it recounts McBurney’s journey in creating the piece and the interruptions to his work from his small beautifully spoken daughter who wants a story.
But it is not as simple as that. Elsewhere, McBurney, directly addressing the audience (or so it seems), considers topics as diverse as the nature of reality in modern society, the difference between memory and documented history, the power of suggestion, the calamity the natural world faces because of mankind’s indifference to it and the wastefulness of existence. There is a focus on regeneration which is both revelatory and frightening.
If all of this sounds worthy, it is. But it is also fascinating and completely involving. Actually, you could have called this production Heisenberg because the uncertainty principle applies just as easily to this work as to the Simon Stephens play performing mere streets away.
If you watch something closely enough, you have no possible way of telling where it’s going or how fast it’s getting there.
This is very true of The Encounter. You just have to let McBurney’s exhortations and invocations work their magic. The more attention you pay, and you can’t but want to pay attention, the more he discombobulates you, unnerves you. It’s heady, intoxicating stuff.
When McBurney enters the stage, it seems haphazard, a jocular time filler while the stragglers in the audience take their seats. But it is not. Like almost everything about this spectacle, it is carefully calibrated; you are led to think one thing while another turns out to be true. Perception is shattered, right from the opening, and that superb sense of fearful apprehension never really goes.
Does a photograph of your child tell the truth about that moment in the child’s life? It seems a simple question, but it’s deceptively philosophical and confounding. What defines time. We all agree it is eight o’clock in the evening, but is it? Or is that just an agreed fiction? Is Mike Pence another type of agreed fiction? (Not every conundrum raised the roof with sustained appreciative laughter but that one did).
Once McBurney starts questioning the blocks upon which modern society is built, everything is up for grabs. And as the narrative frolicks along, tempestuously moving from topic to topic, theme to theme, you realise that everything you have ever thought to be a given is suddenly not.
This is achieved in a myriad of complex and conniving ways, all of which are, like a ballet, beautiful to watch, impossible to replicate.
The setting is sparse, a kind of recording studio. There are various microphones scattered around the set, a main plain table at which a photographer might work, and a backdrop that suggests a sound studio. Paul Anderson’s remarkable visceral lighting and Will Duke’s vibrant projections combine to transport audience and actor to other places.
There is a remarkable moment when McBurney performs an aural magic trick. Every member of the audience must wear provided headphones while watching The Encounter. These headphones connect you to McBurney and the tale he tells. At one point a recording of someone blowing air through their mouth is played into everyone’s right ear – and, astonishingly, everyone’s ear feels like it has warmed up. Perception and reality in close interaction.
At one point, McBurney exhorts the audience to close their eyes and just listen. This permits him to play tricks and to juggle with concepts that everyone thought were clear enough. It also permits the beginning to the true storytelling aspect of the performance, his remarkable voice providing a fertile platform for imaginative impulses. It is perfectly possible to enjoy the performance with eyes closed.
But opening them also brings rewards. McBurney is a wonderfully supple and enigmatic physical performer and the sense and emotion he creates by and through his physicality is remarkable. When detailing the experiences of McIntyre with the Mayoruna tribe, McBurney is as intense, sometimes violently so, as any actor could every be. Raging against the elements and grappling with the tribe’s singular vision of the world, McBurney gives a performance every bit as towering and extraordinary as the best King Lear.
Equally, though, McBurney can be touchingly paternal, soft and endearing. The narrative involving McIntyre is frequently interrupted by McBurney’s reminiscing about his small daughter’s refusal to sleep while he is at home working on The Encounter. These scenes are gorgeously done, and they provide a different perspective about the power of story-telling and the way ideas and concepts are passed on from generation to generation – the modern Western tribe and its ways; the Mayoruna tribe and its ways.
Just as there is aural discombobulation, so too is there visual discombobulation as images and lighting combine to create illusions of their own. You quickly realise that there is little you can be sure of: solid objects shimmer and move; the essential proves not to be; destruction can be methodical and calm, as well as ad hoc. Only McBurney’s voice seems inviolate, but then…
This is a masterful and exhilarating combination of word, thought and action. It is shockingly simple and absurdly complicated. Remarks about climate change, Brexit and lamenting the Trump victory inspire the audience. The Encounter suggests the need for a revolution. It couldn’t be more timely.
Or more thrilling.