The Encounter

Complicite/Simon McBurney, inspired by the book Amazon Beaming by Petr Popescu
Home Manchester

Simon McBurney Credit: Robbie Jack

Simon McBurney's solo tour-de-force is, on the face of it, the story of American National Geographic photojournalist Loren McIntyre's 1969 encounter with the Mayoruna people in the Brazilian Amazon, who had managed up to this time to remain cut off from the rest of the world.

McIntyre spots one of the illusive Mayoruna and his journalistic instinct overtakes his usual caution in marking his way back, so he becomes stranded amongst a group of people who believe that the white man only ever brings death. So begins a fascinating jungle adventure told by the charismatic McBurney.

But this is Complicite, so there is rather more to it than that. The setting is a collection of microphones and a table, backed by a wall designed not to reflect sound such as you'd find in an anechoic chamber. The arrangement approximately reflects the room in McBurney's house where he worked on the show. Every so often, he is interrupted by his young daughter, who wants a story of her own before she goes to bed.

For this is all about stories, about the fictions we share that create our societies and keep them together. Before he takes us to the Amazon, he puts it to us that such things as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and The Law are fictional constructs that we share, as neither existed until human beings created them. He contrasts this with the fictional constructions of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt on the NHS; he could have added George Osborne's fictions about the economy if he'd wanted to be topical during Budget week.

We now keep hold of more and more of our stories through photographs and recordings. McBurney says he has thousands of images of his children on his 'phone, but the only video he has of his father was on Super 8 film, transferred to VHS, which is also now obsolete. When he smashes the video cassette, he is preparing us to feel the loss of our stories through images for when McIntyre later loses his camera.

The fictions of the Mayoruna are different from ours, but they are still about bonding a society and survival as a community. For them, objects have spirits, and when the spirits turned against them, they destroyed by fire their homes and all of their possessions. McBurney imagines that happening in our society, on the streets of Washington, destroying every part of our past—including back-ups.

The production uses some remarkable 3D audio technology to deliver a vast aural landscape directly into the ears of the spectators through individual headsets, which he plays with in his opening speeches, but he isn't just showing off the technology. By demonstrating the equipment at the outset, we can marvel at the effects and become used to them, laughing in embarrassment at our own reactions, so he can use it to orientate or disorientate us later once we are over the shock of the new.

But it is also part of the philosophical ideas of perception, storytelling and time, woven together with the excitement and humour of an adventure story and the moral dilemma of a journalist who wants to shout about what he has discovered but worries about what will happen to his subjects once they are revealed to the world.

There is layer upon layer of story, philosophy and science—mathematician Marcus du Sautoy makes an appearance on the soundtrack—which is all woven together into a remarkable piece of theatre delivered by a master storyteller and great actor. It is unmissable.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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