Wednesday 23 September 2015

Theatre Review: The Encounter at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

Complicite’s work over the last 30 years has garnered a reputation for being both emotionally and philosophically challenging and, fresh from the Edinburgh International Festival, artistic director Simon McBurney’s aurally spectacular The Encounter certainly lives up to expectations.

Set in the dense jungle of the Amazon rainforest, McBurney tells the story of Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photojournalist dropped there by plane in 1969, seeking out the remote Mayoruna tribes people. For each audience member, using binaural technology and individual headsets, The Encounter combines the remarkably intimate experience of a story happening right there in your head (when McBurney says he’s about to breathe in your ear you can feel his presence beside you) with a shared involvement in what’s being created on stage.

McBurney uses a voice-lowering microphone and American accent to become McIntyre as he recounts his adventures, inspired by Petru Popescu’s novel Amazon Beaming. Stumbling upon a Mayoruna tribe and then realising he hasn’t marked his route back to camp, McIntyre is thrown into dependency for his own survival on the community he has discovered. Initially without any form of common language, he nevertheless becomes aware that, involved in a struggle of their own, not all of the tribe welcomes his presence.

McBurney takes time to develop his story, layering it over a multitude of voices; the soundscape of contemporary western life combining with explanations of technology and exchanges with his young daughter. Only gradually – as McIntyre’s western possessions, his reliance on his camera and watch, are denied him – does new language and connection emerge in the jungle. He begins to understand why he is not universally accepted; white people have brought death before, their quest for oil sucking the earth of its blood. He forges elemental friendships amid the hostility, encounters jaguars, thorns and maggots, and falls into a fever where real life and a dream world intertwine. Ultimately, he seeks a place where he can accompany the Mayoruna in their quest to reach back to their beginning.

In the audience, you often share McIntyre’s disorientation, his sense of only beginning to discover his true self when his possessions and preconceptions are stripped away. In creating this remote world, McBurney is quite simply mesmerising; using water bottles, spent videotape and his own body to create layers of sound, he loops it back on itself, contorting, whispering, story-telling. In this, he’s supported by a team of technicians interpreting Gareth Fry’s stunningly precise and complex sound design, with atmospheric lighting and striking projections onto a backdrop of soundproofing foam by Paul Anderson and Will Duke.

The Encounter is an immersive and intense two hours, which itself stretches and contracts time and challenges the hierarchies we unthinkingly buy into. It’s been quite a week at Bristol Old Vic, all in all, with Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree first redefining the nature of theatre and connectedness in the studio space and now McBurney again pushing at our supposedly civilised boundaries on the main stage.

Reviewed on Saturday 19 September 2015 | Photo: Robbie Jack

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