In 1969 the American photographer Lauren McIntyre set off on a mission to the Amazon basin. His goal: to photograph the legendary Mayoruna tribal community (the “cat people”) for the National Geographic. But soon after he landed McIntyre became hopelessly lost after he chased a group of Mayoruna deep into the jungle. Forced to live with the tribe, McIntyre came to learn about “the beginning” – a time stream running parallel with but outside of everyday time which the Mayoruna believed would offer a refuge from the destruction of the rainforest. McIntyre’s presence was interpreted as a good omen by the chief, who McIntyre claimed communicated with him telepathically.
Based on Petru Popescu’s book Amazon Beaming, The Encounter’s success hinges on theatricalising the philosophical questions and meditations on humanity’s experience of time McIntyre described to Popescu. This is accomplished with a sophistication and level of technical precision only master theatre-storytellers like Complicite are capable of delivering.
During the two hour performance at the Barbican the audience flow between the auditorium, the jungle, and McBurney’s home through the use of a binaural microphone (“made by Siemens”). Its effectiveness as a powerful theatrical tool was proven when McBurney instructed us to don our headphones during his deceptively low key preamble, whereupon he blew into the microphone and made each of our ears feel that little bit warmer. Moments such as these demonstrated how little is needed to stoke an audience’s imagination if given the right provocation, whilst simultaneously encapsulating the slippery nature of reality.
The technology McBurney and his two sound operators Helen Skiera and Ella Wahlström masterfully play with makes The Encounter a powerful synthesis of sound and image, but manifests most strongly as an invisible imaginary construct. The chief’s ominous words, “some of us are friends”, were channelled to my left ear and haunted my mind long after I left the theatre. McBurney accurately describes Skiera and Wajlstrom as “characters”. Their presence in the performance exceeds pure technical affect by having an active dynamic with the audience’s experience of watching an ostensibly solo performer. The Encounter forces us to reassess how non-embodied presences can exist onstage. Technology allows audiences to experience these presences as having as much dynamism as actors.
Transitioning effortlessly from addressing the audience as himself to performing the words of McIntyre, McBurney adds reflections on McIntyre’s character and throws a good dose of theoretical physics into the mix using a loop pedal. The moments when these voices overlap does not create a confusing narrative but a sophisticated palimpsest. McBurney ruminates at the beginning that time is not a straight line humanity is walking on, leaving everything behind in its wake. The audience are therefore never allowed to absorb themselves in a lone story as many voices effortlessly ebb into our hearing.
The Mayoruna’s beginning is not a return to a past but a relinquishment of everything that has accompanied them to the present moment. After watching them ceremoniously burn their meagre possessions McIntyre envisions whole US cities burning to the ground in order to forge a new relationship between Man and the environment. Onstage it became an anarchic vision that did not inspire or frighten so much as it cracked open the possibility of a time that is not inevitable, one where humanity does not see the destruction of the natural world as necessary to its continuation, but as its greatest threat.
There are many encounters in this piece: McIntyre’s with the Mayoruna, Popescu’s with McIntyre, McBurney’s with his sleepless daughter, but the most profound is undoubtedly that between the audience and the times which enveloped them. McBurney acts as a guide to the sublime. In The Encounter Complicite have begun writing a new language for theatre. An exceptional piece created by artists who are re-inventing the theatre machine, The Encounter reminds us why storytelling is vital to our survival.