“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.
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.
The 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.
Creating 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.”
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.
It 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