The Encounter

I’m now talking in your right hear. I’m now talking in your left ear. If you didn’t hear my voice correctly you will need to turn your headphones around.” You know you’re in for an interesting two hours at the theatre when the first thing you are asked to do is put headphones on, and put them on correctly

The Ecounter is a story based on the memoirs of Loren McIntyre. In 1971 McIntyre, a photo journalist, was dropped in the Javari Valley, a remote part of the Amazon rainforest with the aim of finding the source of the Amazon river. It was believed that only the elusive Mayoruna tribe of people knew where the source of the river was.

McIntyre’s journal was faithfully written into a book ‘Amazon Beaming’ by Petru Popescu and it was this book that fascinated actor Simon McBurney from the moment he started to read it.

The Encounter is McIntyre’s story, or part of it at least, and Simon McBurney is the storyteller. Like someone reading to you from a book, McBurney plays all the characters and uses sophisticated audio technology to speak to each member of audience directly and personally.

imageThe stage at the Barbican is vast and dominated by clusters of bottles of water. There’s a simple desk with a couple of microphones and an binaural head, which is essentially a sophiscated microphone that mimics how we hear. Later when McBurney speaks into the left ear of the binaural we hear it in he left ear of our headphones. When he walks behind the binaural the audience has the odd sensation of watching him in front of us but hearing him walk behind our heads.

imageCreating intimacy and encouraging imagination are at the heart of the audience experience, for periods of time it’s like watching the recording of a radio play and gaining an insight to the tricks of the trade. At one point McBurney picks up one of the many water bottles that are strewn across the stage, takes a sip and then moves the remaining water inside the bottle. As an audience we can see this but in the context of the story we imagine and believe it’s the lapping waters of the Amazon river.

For the character of McIntyre McBurney uses a deep American accent and uses his own voice to narrate. Much of what we hear from McIntyre are thoughts in his head, as he comes face-to-face with the tribe and chases them through the thick forest, getting hopelessly lost in the process, he realizes they don’t have a common audible language. His attempts at Spanish and Portugeuese, languages that many Amazonian tribes have picked up, are met with blank faces. Lost, tired and desperately wanting to learn more about the tribe, McIntyre joins them, follows them and comes to understand their values. He comes to believe that the tribe leader is conveying his thoughts but without speaking or gesturing. McIntyre is convinced that the two men are able to hold a conversation by thinking the words, a form of communication that he later discovers is called the “old way”. As the journey continues hunger, thirst and exhaustion grip McIntyre but the pace of progress is relentless and the tribe pursue their quest. The quest, as McIntyre learns, is the utopian feeling of freedom and rebirth that comes from the sacrifice and destruction of all material things – “going back to the beginning.”image

Just when you’re tempted to close your eyes and experience the story in your head McBurney weaves in visual effects, which are often subtle but confirm that it is an audio visual experience, it is theatre, theatre that successfully blends sophisticated technology with the basic constructs of performance.

imageIt would be misplaced to think that the technology makes the show. It creates an experience for the audience but it’s only microphones and headphones. The real talent is McBurney and his technical team who together are great storytellers.

Stanislavski said “You can kill the King without a sword, and you can light the fire without a match. What needs to burn is your imagination.”

What McBurney does magnificently is convey his own imagination to us in the audience, it’s as if we are glimpsing what he is thinking but without knowing what is coming next, it’s as if he is communicating using the ‘old way’.


For more about The Encounter visit the Complicite site

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Comedy Dinner

13-460-300-0-0-460-300Comedy Dinners are a very British concept. Theatre amongst the diners, and of course the central character is the best known of them all, Basil Fawlty.

comedy dinnersFor many male actors, playing Hamlet, Macbeth or Lear is the pinnacle, an aspiration that many realise and accept won’t happen. Basil Fawlty was the creation of a comic genius with dialogue written by skilled comedians. So why is it that actors believe they can play an icon of television comedy by laughing at their own jokes and clipping the ear of a short bloke with a big mustache? It’s like carrying around a skull and claiming to be Hamlet. 

When you’re invited to a venue where the staff have provided the comedy for years, it was always going to be interesting to see how a production of ‘The Best of British Comedy’ was going to be staged. 

comedy dinnersLet me set the scene. The audience is dining at Fawlty Towers (and don’t we know it), apparently Sybil is away for the weekend playing golf and Basil is being assisted in the dining room by Barbara Windsor and Manuel. 

The production company state that the performance is ‘half scripted and half improvised’ and I can honestly say that the joins were seamless.

Throughout the evening there were cameo appearances from such loved comic characters as Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous, Frank Spencer, Del Boy, Tommy Cooper and the policeman from ‘Allo, ‘Allo.

How, you may wonder, did they weave such characters into the narrative? Well, it helps if the narrative is……., shall we call it, fluid?

comedy dinnersPatsy was a disgruntled punter looking for a table in an apparently full restaurant. Frank Spencer was the newly employed handy-man. Del Boy was trying to sell stuff. Tommy Cooper had been raised from the dead and hired by Basil Fawlty as the evening’s entertainment. And the appearance of the policeman from ‘Allo ‘Allo was an inspiration that only the scriptwriter is aware of.


To be fair it might have been a good script but unfortunately the actors weren’t wearing microphones, the room was too big to control and the performers were up-staged by the hotel staff.

In some venues having a plate of food thrown down on the table by Basil Fawlty would be a comic moment but in other places it’s part of the charm and not that unusual.

When you’ve got over a hundred people in a room divided in half by a dance floor you need to have stage presence, big performances and a degree of control. If you don’t, you get all the chaos of Fawlty Towers but without the comedy.

IMG_0339It was billed as an evening of theatre with dinner. Instead it was dinner with the occasional burst of a TV theme tune to cue the appearance of hastily dressed actor who did their best to deliver lines over the hubbub of persistent conversation and clattering cutlery. I’d blame it on the alcohol but when Patsy staggered around an empty dance floor on her lonesome, trying to deliver some slurred lines, I hadn’t yet finished my first glass. By the time she found a semi-dignified way to leave the room I realised that ordering by the glass would be futile. “Manuel, bring me the wine list.”

Of course part of the entertainment should happen when the characters come to the table. Manuel had us in stitches as he filled the water glasses to the brim! Basil asked us several times how the evening was going and reveled in the opportunity to share his ‘fork off’ puns after Franck Spencer removed one from the table. And then when the fish being was served………oh no, that was the hotel waitress.

I would imagine that as performers you quickly judge how an audience is going to respond and when the audience are busy doing their own impressions and discussing the drama in their own lives, I expect that dessert can’t come soon enough.

It wasn’t that it was a bad performance, it was simply a bad idea. 

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