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Acoustic baffling. The phrase describes both the backdrop to the vast Barbican stage for this Complicite production — a pattern of foam wedges to deaden reverberation within a space — and director/performer Simon McBurney’s approach to telling this particular story. The audience don headphones and attend as McBurney works a stage bare but for a functional table and chair, a few dozen mineral water bottles and the wherewithal to create a range of soundscapes.
McBurney wears a head microphone; there are a number of ambient mics, and a binaural set-up shaped like a human head to create the kind of stereo surround panorama we naturally perceive. One of two directional mics at the table is set to fluke McBurney’s tenor speaking voice down to become that of his protagonist, American photojournalist Loren McIntyre. McBurney uses handheld speakers and looping units to create the sounds of the Amazon rainforest in which McIntyre made first contact in the 1970s with a Mayoruna tribe and, cut off from contact with “civilisation”, accompanied them in bewilderment on their quest to return to “the beginning” . . . of time.
Recordings from different times — interviews with Petru Popescu (of whose book Amazon Beaming this is an adaptation) and the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, domestic conversations with McBurney’s young daughter — blend in our ears with the live performance. For this piece not only retells McIntyre’s story about time, but is itself about storytelling and time, and also about voices. The multi-vocal storytelling of McBurney’s Berlin production of Stefan Zweig’s Beware Of Pity, which I reviewed here several weeks ago, now becomes apparent as a kind of limbering-up for this presentation, in which one man remains alone on stage for more than two uninterrupted hours.
Alone on stage, but not in our perception. The Encounter is not unlike one of Katie Mitchell’s dramatic deconstructions, except that the artificial composition builds up not before our eyes but between our ears and that, in a Complicite keynote, the process is never allowed to overshadow the material. This account of the lessons and wonders that a technology-free Brazilian people may have to teach us is conveyed by using contemporary technology to create a palpable impression of those wonders.
To March 6, barbican.org.uk
‘The Encounter’ will be available as a live stream direct from the Barbican on FT.com on Tuesday March 1, at 7.30pm. For a full appreciation, please wear headphones: ft.com/the-encounter