Leaping off from Petru Popescu’s book “Amazon Beaming,” an account of an American photographer’s encounter with an indigenous tribe, Simon McBurney’s solo show for his company Complicite is quite extraordinary: a profound meditation on our relationship to time and a captivating piece of high-definition storytelling. “The Encounter,” premiering as part of the Edinburgh International Festival and moving to London’s Barbican in February, is theater that materializes out of next to nothing, with one of the world’s great theatermakers — and theater thinkers — working right on the cutting edge of his art-form to scintillating effect.
McBurney has long been fascinated by the presence of the past. (His father was a renowned archaeologist.) In “Mnemonic” (2003), he recounted the discovery of Ötzi, a 5,500 year-old corpse found preserved in the Alps. “The Encounter” seeks out Ötzi’s living counterparts: the Mayoruna tribe, living isolated in the Amazon rainforest.
McBurney stands on a large soundstage, its back wall patterned with foam soundproofing. There’s a desk with a couple of microphones and, center stage, a head on a stick: a binaural microphone that records sound in space. When he whispers into its left ear, we in the audience, wearing headphones, feel his presence at our left shoulder. Gareth Fry’s design piles up layers of sounds — recorded interviews, foley effects, a soundscape of McBurney’s home study. The effect is a soundcloud of a process, in which fact and fiction, past and present, research and production intermingle, spinning a story out of the air.
One microphone drops McBurney’s voice a register. Adopting a slow American accent, he becomes Loren McIntyre, the American photojournalist who, in 1969, successfully located the Mayoruna people. In doing so, McIntyre dropped out of time. Having failed to mark a route back to civilization, he became marooned amid 400 square miles of dense, Brazilian rainforest. With no shared language and suspicion growing among the tribe, his survival hangs in the balance, dependent on the protection of its headman, whom he nicknames Barnacles. In time, the two men strike up a connection, apparently telepathic.
It’s a story told with vivid precision, both linguistic and theatrical. McBurney flies over the Amazon with a bamboo stick for a plane. He takes us right into the rainforest, looping his own animal whoops and insectoid croaks as he circles the stage, rustling plastic for leaves underfoot. The head-mic becomes the shamanic headman. It’s a deeply immersive experience, completely transporting. You seem to fall out of time with McIntyre and McBurney, rapt by this gripping thriller.
Time swirls through the whole piece: the modernity encroaching on and threatening Mayorunan existence, photographs that attempt to pause the present, sound recordings that bring back the past. It explores the psychology of time — the need to stay connected to it and the urge to surpass or escape it — as well as the philosophy. “More than one time is possible,” says a scientist in a recorded interview. McBurney makes it so.
History exists in our heads just as this show does. It’s a kind of telepathy in itself; McBurney’s voice transmitting direct to our brains. The show’s form doesn’t just echo its content, it elucidates it. All this technology serves the same primitive, human urges: the need to communicate, the itch to transcend time. Where Mayorunae lick frogs and dance for hours, we disappear into our smartphones.
What elevates this story — a gripping adventure in its own right — is that it so matters to McBurney. It’s born of a burning question: whether we need all this stuff; whether the gadgets and comforts are worth the intrusions into our lives and relationships; whether the march of materialism is worth everything it eradicates. He takes a hammer to his tech desk, then stops. Scattered around the stage are water bottles — exactly what the parched McIntyre needs to survive, exactly what McBurney needs to calm down. This is a piece that asks about the price of progress, but never forgets the possibilities. Sensational.