Interview: Simon McBurney on ‘The Encounter’
‘The Encounter’ begins with performer/creator Simon McBurney telling us that right now he should be at home telling his daughter a bedtime story. He’s not, of course. He’s here on the stage of the Barbican Theatre, surrounded by a complicated setup of mics and sound equipment ready to perform Complicité’s critically acclaimed show, returning after a storming run in 2016. His daughter’s loss is our gain: we’re about to experience what’s probably the best bedtime story ever. One that encompasses time travel, mind-reading and an expedition deep into the Amazon.
The first thing you need to know about ‘The Encounter’ is that it uses binaural (that’s both ears) technology via headphones hooked up to each seat. If you’ve not experienced the effect before, it’s quite a thing. An aeroplane goes overhead and you can hear the roar move across the space above you. And when someone whispers in your ear it’s like they’re standing a few centimetres away. In a world where we’re constantly meant to be wowed by new tech this is, perhaps surprisingly, a deeply satisfying experience.
Thankfully this isn’t a show that’s too preoccupied with the technology it’s using. It’s just a tool – flawlessly executed by a phenomenal creative team – that enables a simply gorgeous piece of storytelling. McBurney does that thing that only brilliant writers manager to master. He brings together multiple, disparate story threads and intertwines them into a rich, coherent whole.
You don’t always know how you got from A to B in this story but it makes complete sense in the moment. And that’s all very apt as ‘The Encounter’ is about being lost in the Amazon. It’s a story about 1960s American photographer and explorer Loren McIntyre and his remarkable expedition to photograph the Mayoruna people. It’s also about being lost in time – and how that very concept is a deceptive cultural one (any more on this and I’d be spoiling it for you). And finally, it’s about being lost in a story. McBurney reflects on the nature of storytelling throughout. Sometimes that kind of self-reflexiveness can feel a bit pretentious, tedious. Not here. His own story adds a contemporary, relatable hook.
But all this talk of themes and ideas perhaps belies what is a deeply absorbing and immediate experience. This is the sort of storytelling that roots you to the spot and fills you with childlike enthrallment. I, for one, just didn’t want it to stop.