‘And now I’m somewhere inside your head’, Simon McBurney ironically announces once we have placed the headphones upon our heads. McBurney proceeds to tell the story of Loren McIntyre, whose search for the Amazon’s source in 1969 lead to a dreamlike encounter with the Mayoruna people, as he claims to have communicated telepathically with their headman. Rather than bringing literal representations to the stage, Complicite’s collaborative work uses binaural technology as if to telepathically deliver the story. They provide the audience with a clear mental depiction of, and easy movement between, the Amazon rainforest and McBurney’s home study.
We thus complete the set by imaginatively filling the space around McBurney’s action. Onstage is designer Michael Levine’s minimal sound studio littered with plastic water bottles, whilst Gareth Fry’s sound design and McBurney’s vivid descriptions create a contrastingly natural and primitive world. McBurney pushes multitasking to its extreme by narrating the story through enthusiastic voice and mime, as well as portraying McIntyre’s character, and recording live sounds to accompany pre-recorded ones. His one-man performance and layering of sounds allows us to completely forget that we are looking onto a high-tech set at the Barbican.
Small, specific sounds play a central role in enhancing perspective and setting, and it is amazing to watch McBurney create them when compared with what they stimulate in our minds. The suspense of McIntyre frantically running through the jungle is heightened by McBurney as he steps in a box of magnetic tape. The fact that the sounds transmitted directly into my ears are artificially created is surpassed by the images they prompt in my head; I do not focus on McBurney stepping in a box, but see a lost and terrified McIntyre stumbling through an immense jungle. Even as I see water sloshing about inside a plastic bottle, it becomes the water of the vast Amazon River, upon which McIntyre’s plane has landed.
McBurney’s perfect timing in delivering and responding to sounds carries the performance and allows it to unfold with ease. As McIntyre gradually loses a sense of self, becoming literally and psychologically lost in the jungle, Complicite manipulates our senses so we too can be lost in the world of the play. McBurney walks around the dummy head microphone and, using onstage looping pedals, creates the sounds of the jungle with his mouth and body; a rainforest landscape that seems almost tangible is evoked in our ears. Like the jungle, The Encounter slowly consumes and overwhelms its listeners, as the intensity of the sounds exceeds our own thoughts.
Complicite confronts a modern audience with our privileged position, our environmental impact, and the effect upon its inhabitants on the other side of the world. I left the Barbican rather overwhelmed, asking myself numerous questions on reality, our perception of time, my own existence, and our disconnected relationship with the natural world. I think The Encounter therefore did its job. Having spent two hours with McBurney inside my head, providing such a mind-blowing experience, I would happily have him back again.
14th February 2016
Photo by Robbie Jack
The Encounter – Complicite/Simon McBurney – The Barbican, London