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THEATRE ONLINE A meaningful Encounter

The meeting of two very different cultures in Complicite's play raises profound questions about how humans connect, says SUSAN DARLINGTON

The Encounter
Complicite
complicite.org/theencounteronline

NATIONAL Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre became lost in the Amazon rainforest while searching for the Mayoruna people in 1969 and his encounter with the unacculturated tribe tested his perception of the world and his sense of self.

In Complicite’s The Encounter, his story is intertwined with details of the life of director, performer and playwright Simon McBurney, solo on a stage littered with mics and bottles of water.

The sound baffles on the backdrop ripple with colours — green for the forest, blue for churning water — but the space is often often unlit, matching the darkness and confusion within the narrative.

The energy and tension come in part from the physicality of McBurney’s performance especially when, half insane with hallucinogens and stripped bare to the waist, he performs a tribal dance that palpably combines ecstasy and exhaustion.

Yet in the main the atmosphere is communicated through Gareth Fry’s sound design, which requires  the audience to don headphones to appreciate a truly immersive sound experience. 

Reels of video tape evoke the rustling of leaves, crisp packets and crackling of flames, with the sound panning from left to right to confuse the brain into thinking that there is actual movement.

McBurney’s voice, pitch-shifted and looped — a technological trick, he confesses — conjures the mental state of confusion.

It’s also conveyed through multilayered noises and voices, including academics talking about concepts of time and the unavoidability of material progress.

Yet far more than just an experiment in sound technology, the story has newfound relevance today.

Originally performed at London’s Barbican in 2016, McBurney’s new online introduction draws parallels between the tribe’s attempt to “return to the beginning” with society’s need to ask: “How are we going to begin again?” as we come out of lockdown.

The central themes of the difference between fiction and reality, communication and time as a possession acutely pertinent.

The longer McIntyre spends with the tribe, the more his values are questioned.

Having discovered his watch on a bonfire, his concept of time becomes nebulous and, finding his camera in the hands of a monkey, he loses his identity and starts to actually listen.

Alone in an unfamiliar culture and with no common language, he’s forced to find other ways to socially connect and imagines he can telepathically communicate with the headman.

Just as we are likewise physically isolated but connected by circumstance, it‘s perhaps time to remember The Encounter’s repeated mantra that “some of us are friends.”

Online until May 22.

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