All 2 entries tagged Ecotheatre

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February 18, 2016

Complicite at the Barbican. The Encounter. 17th February 2016.

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).

November 13, 2014

Royal Court Theatre – 2071. Letter to Chris Rapley, 12th November 2014

Dear Chris,

first may I say how much I enjoyed the performance of 2071 at the Royal Court last night (November 12th). As an admirer of Duncan MacMillan's climate change play Lungs I confess I was hoping for another play, rather than a scientific monologue. On the other hand, the theatricality of this production is not to be denied. The scenography is stunning, in the same way black and white films can be. My spectatorial brain initially objected to the reduction of a planetary spectacle to humdrum shades of black, white and grey, but then the subliminal pattern-loving subconscious kicked in and revelled in the earthly fusion of shapes, musical sounds, rhythms, maps and numbers shifting, turning, spiralling behind and in tune with you as you spoke.

For me, the latest IPCC Assessment Report (AR) had seemed to put more emphasis on adaptation than mitigation, for what really comes over in the fragments I have read during the year is our vulnerability in the face of the changes human beings are inflicting on the climate system. It was good to hear a more upbeat message, even if I slightly despaired internally at the idea that human beings will be able to do the equivalent of sticking to a strict diet through generations, for hundreds of years.

Thank you, also, for digesting (in the space of an intense 75 minutes) several times the four and a half kilos in physical weight describing just one section of the IPCC AR, and for your no-holds-barred delivery of science. I revelled in the repetition of beautiful words such as cryosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, and the penny dropped on the question I wanted to ask at the start. Delivering a lecture, why did you need a playwright? By the end I had answered my own question. We non-scientists cannot hope to understand the millions of recondite corners in the truly monumental work of the IPCC, but can happily play with words and connect to the physicality behind the science, just as you did - land, water, air, sun, sea-level, Argo floats, ice-house, collapse, interglacial, swamp forests, ice sheets, equilibrium.

There is one issue I really want to challenge you on. You stated that the necessary shift away from fossil fuels will render coal and oil reserves economically worthless. This idea - economic worth - begs further exploration. How it is used here suggests an embeddedness in the very culture your message would have us escape from. Considering the reason for the title of your monologue, I cautiously mention the common perception that informal care (such as grand-parenting) is economically worthless. This cannot be true. The part it plays in the societal ecosystem is beyond price, therefore its economic value (alongside many other kinds of value, tangible and intangible) is, by implication, considerable. The economy is in the social system and the social system is in the economy. Returning to your fossil fuel point, in a zero carbon world fossil fuel reserves are economically worthless. Yes, but the part they play in the ecosystem when still under the ground is beyond price therefore their economic value left under the ground (alongside many other kinds of value) is potentially enormous. The economy is within and subsidiary to the ecosystem therefore the ecosystem is also woven through the fabric of the economy; the problem is the narrow definition of economic worth.

I could not agree more with your conclusion. Science enlightens. It cannot tell us how we want to think, or live. What we need is the Brechtian moment in which we wake up to the fact that we have choices. So, I return to Duncan MacMillan's play Lungs. What I would really love to see is the two together, the 2071 ecomonologue followed by the visceral ecotheatrical dialogue.

Creatives: Duncan MacMillan and Chris Rapley. Direction: Katie Mitchell.


F. Carmichael and M.G. Egolani (2013). 'Overlooked and undervalued: the caring contribution of older people', International Journal of Social Economics, 42 (5).

Duncan MacMillan (2011). Lungs (London: Oberon Books).

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