It feels like hours since I made the mistake of asking the cleverest man in theatre what his new show is about. Simon McBurney is now in full flow, and I am somewhat terrifed.
‘We’ve created this narrative of being separate from nature,’ he snarls with a ferocity that rather startles me, ‘because we do things like going away for the weekend. We go to the country. We go and look at a few cows as if that is getting into nature. But of course we are part of nature.’
That’s just a fragment of the hyperintellectual screed McBurney hits me with in response to one of three questions I meekly manage in a 50-minute ‘chat’. His speech mirrors his work: confrontational, elliptical, strangely amusing and heavily touched by genius.
And the latest work from the founder of the legendary avant-garde theatre company Complicite may just be the show of his career.
‘It's like nothing you've ever experienced’
‘The Encounter’ is, loosely speaking, an adaptation of a very strange book called ‘Amazon Beaming’, American photojournalist Loren McIntyre’s account – as told to author Petru Popescu – of his time stranded among an isolated Amazonian tribe who could apparently communicate with their minds, and who responded to the encroachment of civilisation with a ritual to separate themselves from the modern world for ever.
When I ask McBurney if he thinks McIntyre was telling the truth, he nearly makes me cry by parrying with: ‘What do we mean by truth?’ – before relenting with: ‘I think there is no question that he experienced what he says he experienced. One of the things that tells me this is the fact that he was so alarmed by it he didn’t tell anybody for 20 years.’
A copy of ‘Amazon Beaming’ was given to McBurney by a friend years ago and an adaptation had been on his to-do list ever since: ‘I once did about three minutes of something and I remember somebody saying: “Oh my God that’s exciting.” Then I forgot about it for years.’
Finally he hit upon the remarkable form of ‘The Encounter’. It’s a monologue, of sorts, in which elaborate technological trickery – including audience headphones and an eerie, hi-tech mask on stage – are deployed to completely mess with our heads. It begins like a casual chat; it ends with the sense that the world is actually ending, as the air in the room appears to shimmer and rip. It is a play about a ritual to end the world that itself takes the form of a ritual to end the world.
If it’s not clear what I’m talking about, trust me: you need to encounter ‘The Encounter’ yourself.