British theatre company Complicite have a reputation for extraordinary and innovative theatre. Their astonishingly beautiful production A Disappearing Number, was a play about pure mathematics, that somehow made sense of string theory for the layperson when it played Sydney in 2008 and across cinemas as part of NT Live in 2010. Full of new ideas and ways of conveying complex notions it was a truly unique piece of art. Likewise, The Encounter breaks new ground in theatrical presentation, taking audiences on an audio adventure down the Amazon that has wound from Edinburgh to London, Broadway to Sydney and now Melbourne.
Taking its inspiration from the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu, it conveys the story of Loren McIntyre, an American photojournalist who when working for National Geographic magazine in the late 1960s became lost deep in the isolated Javari Valley of Brazil. After making contact with native tribes people whose interactions with the Western World had been all but non-existent, McIntyre became a pseudo member of their community and eventually through his expeditions, he ‘discovered’ the source of the Amazon River.
Basing a play on a story that largely takes place in a setting that very few people in the world have ever seen, let alone experienced, is a challenge that doesn’t seem to have worried Complicite director Simon McBurney who has put his ever-inventive mind to a remarkable solution. Through the use of a ‘binaural head’ recording device (a microphone that records in ‘3D’) and the provision of headphones at every seat, a truly unique soundscape is created that allows the audience to be transported half-way around the globe, in a way that would never be possible with simply sets and standard audio alone.
From experiencing the roar of the light aircraft flying over the jungle, to the cacophony of the forest wildlife and the percussion of a rainstorm, the soundscapes (mostly created live), surround you in complete 360 degrees. Through the use of vocal manipulation ‘in microphone’ our mild-mannered English narrator and audio looping wiz played by Richard Katz, while taking us through the process of developing and performing the play, is transformed into his interpretation of Loren McIntyre with a sonorous American drawl.
Katz’s performance as McIntyre is extraordinary, taking us through the journey of landing in the rainforest, meeting the local people and attempting to record photographically his experiences without creating a hostile impression. The tribe he finds speak neither speak nor understand any languages other than their own and so communication becomes something as spiritual as it is physical.
It’s a classic story of adventure on the wild frontier that simply doesn’t have the opportunity to occur anymore as the world becomes entirely conformed by Western civilisation. However, that’s what’s intriguing about McBurney’s interpretation of this story, the way he tries to reconcile the actions of these untouched tribes people with contemporary society.
While the environment of the rainforest is most definitely created by the ever-changing audio landscape casting into your ears thanks to the stunning sound design by Gareth Fry with Pete Malkin, it has to be said that without the extraordinary efforts of the stage management team, this show would be nothing. Michael Levine’s cunning ‘sound studio’ set design, complemented by Paul Anderson’s beautiful lighting and Will Duke’s projections, also add visual richness to the picture being painted in your mind’s eye.
Katz keeps up a cracking pace throughout this two-hour journey through his and our minds, to the point where McIntyre’s exhaustion seems palpable, and for the most part the momentum is sustained well. The regular breaks into ‘reality’ as Katz steps away from his performance as McIntyre and returns to his London flat where he is interrupted by his five year-old daughter as he works late into the night, help to pause the incessant tension and draw thought-provoking ideas. It’s a nice way to break the content down into bite-sized pieces, but eventually it feels like it overloads the narrative somewhat, and the final thirty minutes of the play, where McIntyre starts to explore the powers of his mind with the shaman of the tribe become somewhat bloated.
Despite the slightly deflating conclusion, this production is peerless in almost every way. New ideas in theatre are often disappointingly difficult to come by, yet it seems Complicite have a well from which they draw fresh thinking on a constant basis. The Encounter is one of the rarest of theatrical beasts, the wholly unique and original conception. Lovers of the art of theatre are urged not to miss this journey into new lands and experiences.