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Simon McBurney’s latest show begins without my realising it. I’m still fumbling with the headphones attached to my seat when he appears. The stage resembles a recording studio, with a cluttered desk, freestanding microphones and bottles of water strewn about. While a technician fixes a mic to his jeans, McBurney chats to us about his smartphone. It contains hundreds of pictures of his small children, he says, scrolling through them, more pictures than were taken of him during his entire childhood. We live by the stories we create, he muses, “even the United Kingdom is a fiction”. This casual prologue, seemingly spontaneous, goes to the heart of what The Encounter is about: the stories through which see the world and the illusion of linear time.
McBurney is artistic director of Complicite, the experimental theatre company known for its use of physical theatre and technology. Previous productions have featured striking video work, but here binaural technology — sounds recorded and transmitted separately into each ear — creates a rich and intricate soundscape. The props are not visual aids but sound instruments, a slurp of water becoming a gushing stream. A highlight of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, this one-man show bursts with colour and life, a seamless blend of technology and storytelling.
The story is that of Loren McIntyre, an American photojournalist who, in 1969, lost his way in the Amazon and came across the Mayoruna tribe. (His experiences are recorded in Petru Popescu’s book Amazon Beaming, which is McBurney’s source.) The Mayoruna are forever dismantling their camp and moving on. But what are they fleeing?
Through the headphones, sound takes on a physical, enveloping presence. We stumble through the rainforest, its damp air alive with insects, journeying across time and space. It’s as claustrophobic and compelling as a dream.
Yet the pleasure of The Encounter is not purely aural. Watching McBurney weave his invisible web with microphones and instruments is more like watching a dance than a radio play recording. But he never allows us to forget that this is fiction, puncturing McIntyre’s narrative with real-life scenes from his own home. It’s night-time and McBurney’s daughter can’t sleep. What are all these microphones, she asks. Can he read her a story? These two strands run parallel until finally merging.
We see McBurney, we see McIntyre and we recreate the Amazon through a hundred second-hand images in our minds. Myth and reality cannot be prised apart, and clock-time is swept aside by the woozy, backward flow of forest time. The Encounter is a tour de force that shows contemporary theatre at its most immersive and thought provoking.