The idea that a theatre production based on in-yer-face technology – the audience must wear headphones throughout – would turn out to be an incredibly powerful piece of ecotheatre sounds improbable. The Encounter is quite simply stunning. It is living proof that the most effective ecotheatre, defined as theatre that forges an emotional connection between spectators and nature (Amazonian river, rainforest and indigenous people on the run from the oil industry) does not have to be staged in an obviously natural environmental space. A conventional theatre space full of a proliferation of electronic gadgets and media, plastic bottles, and electronic waste (a large pile of tangled audio tape in a cardboard box) will do just as well.
‘It seems empathy and proximity are connected, so I’d like to get closer to you’, said the ACTOR. The skin on the back of my neck crawled as someone came so close I could hear them swallowing, and blew in my right ear. There were snipping noises as someone seemed to cut my hair. I resisted the temptation to turn round – spectatorial earphones had been checked so many times by the production team that I KNEW this was Simon McBurney breathing into a binaural microphone, and sound effects were being skilfully manipulated by the sound team sitting right behind us. This did not get in the way of an embodied response on my part. So, I was primed for a mind-blowing experience.
The Encounter is based on the story of Loren McIntyre, a fifty-something National Geographic photographer who was dropped into the rainforest for three days on a photographic mission. Almost immediately he found the Mayoruna (‘cat people’). Obsessed by taking pictures to prove they existed, he was drawn into the jungle, failed to mark a trail back to camp, and became their prisoner. He found himself forced to walk through the jungle for days, for they were constantly on the move, and not following them would have been certain death. Gradually Loren (and we spectators) found out that they were on the way back to the ‘beginning’. This consisted of a ceremony close to the head of the river, where they would burn all their possessions in order to go back in time thereby escaping the ravages of civilisation. What a parable!
Followed up close and personal by the Barbican audience, Loren battled his way agonisingly through heat, hunger, an attempt to put the hex on him by burning his watch and trainers (and destroying his camera), and an attempt to kill him by leaving him embedded in a thorn bush in the dark. He ripped his way out of the thorns and his wounds were (oh so disgustingly) invaded by flesh-eating maggots. He drank desperately from some strange cucumbers and suffered hallucinations. The fact that the sound effects associated with these intensely physical, psychologically disturbing experiences were the polar opposite of natural did not matter one jot as far as my reactions went.
I held tightly on to the arms of my seat to stay grounded even though I should not have needed to do that. Modern reality was there in-yer-ears and in-yer-face all the time. The sound effect of people walking on grass in bare feet (heard in rustling detail in my earphones) was actually produced by the ACTOR treading on the pile of tangled audio tape in the cardboard box. The action was interrupted several times by Simon McBurney’s five year old daughter – she opened the door (in recording of course) and demanded something to eat, something to drink (nicely timed with Loren’s desperate thirst), and a bed time story. We were playing with several dimensions of technological time in counterpoint to Loren’s refractory experience of time in the rainforest, without a watch, not as a theoretical construct but (thanks to proximity and empathy) as a series of parallel emotional states of mind.
Loren survived by tuning in to the ‘other’ wordless language of the ‘cat people’. Was the intonation of ‘Some of us are friends’ he repeatedly heard benign or threatening? I felt every prickle of fear Loren must have felt all over my own skin. A whisper in the back of my head suggested that, without the technologically produced dislocations between here and there, now and then, this (also technologically produced) up-close-and-personal experience of psychological deconstruction might well go beyond a reasonable threshold of discomfort, as it surely did for Loren: ‘I feel that my hand groping around the universe has torn a corner open. Soon there will be an encounter. [...] I’m not prepared for this encounter; it’s true. I’m not prepared. Not like the spider swallowed by the snake. And then a thought howls, savagely.’
And Lauren howled, like a two-year-old in a tantrum or a poor threadbare forked animal fit only for a padded room: ‘I was never part of nature. No, I’m not!!! [...]. We’re human beings. We’re not part of nature.’
The story had a happy ending for Loren. He connected with the jungle. He danced to the music of time in the ceremony, and almost immediately a deluge of rain forced him into the river on a flimsy raft, which delivered him back into civilisation. So he lived to tell the tale to Petru Popescu and Complicite. What a bedtime story! As we staggered out into the rainy chill of the London evening, we carried with us a lingering sense of the warm, humid, ‘tense febrile stillness’ of the rainforest, and the sure and certain knowledge that the ‘cat people’ really do exist.
Directed and performed by Simon McBurney.
Co-director – Kirsty Housley.
Design – Michael Levine.
Sound – Gareth Fry with Pete Malkin.
Lighting – Paul Anderson
Projection – Will Duke
Associate Director – Jemima James
Complicite / Simon McBurney (2016). The Encounter (London: Nick Hern Books).