Review by Cicely Binford
The Amazon is a place that exists for most people only in our heads. Perhaps we’ve read about it in books, seen it in film (Herzog is fond), and in photographs. Maybe we’ve even seen images shot by the man at the centre of Complicite and Simon McBurney‘s extraordinary theatre work, The Encounter, which is part of PIAF’s extraordinary 2017 program.
American photographer, writer and explorer for National Geographic Loren McIntyre went to Brazil in search of an uncontacted tribe called the Mayoruna, also known as the Cat People. Not long after having been dropped off at a riverbank, a small group of Mayoruna emerged from the forest to nearby McIntyre’s camp. Not wanting to miss this rare opportunity to capture the lost tribe, McIntyre followed the group into the forest. He couldn’t find his way back out, and ended up living with the tribe for two months.
So maybe the Amazon rain forest is a construct for those of us who’ve never been, but now, because of The Encounter and its technology, we can almost be transported deep into the heart of it. McBurney developed the immersive, multi-sensory show from a book about McIntyre’s encounter called Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu.
The Encounter was originally performed by McBurney, but for its Australian dates (it’s also had an outing in Melbourne through Malthouse), Richard Katz takes us on McIntyre’s perilous journey. By way of introduction, Katz eases us into the concept of the binaural sounds we’ll be hearing through the headphones we’re asked to wear throughout the performance. He playfully acclimates us and then somehow stealthily slips into the characters he’ll be playing for the next hour and a half or so.
With the aid of a pitch shifter that lowers his voice to baritone, Katz affects an American accent and becomes McIntyre. With the aid of loop pedals, certain significant words throughout the tale are repeated until they fade out. Pre-recorded sounds and dialogue are brought in by his mobile on stage and the precision sound techs with their magic fingers at the sound desk.
Soon the sensory immersion becomes familiar, although every once in a while we’re caught off guard by the sound of a door creaking open in our left ear, which signals the entrance of the voice of the narrator’s daughter, who interrupts the story on occasion. This zooms us out of the jungle and back to London, where the narrator is constructing this show.
The journey he takes us on is mind-bending and hallucinatory. It’s thrilling and full of danger, with threatening tribesmen and jungle predators, and mysterious, with a tribal headsman who begins to communicate with McIntyre telepathically. Eventually McIntyre takes part in a ceremony involving frog-licking and he begins to understand things about time and existence that are beyond the capacity of a sober mind.
An unusual aspect of The Encounter is that our sense of sight takes a back seat to our sense of sound. The set is pretty sparse, though there is a massive wall of acoustic foam which can come alive through the use of projections. We’re just looking at one man on a stage with a table, a dummy head recorder on a pole in the middle of the stage, and several plastic water bottles strewn about.
These plastic water bottles feature throughout the piece, useful both for their sound and what they represent in relation to the show’s themes. The Mayoruna are a tribe on the run from encroachment of white men, developers and companies in search of oil (the Earth’s blood, according to the tribe). McBurney posits through this work that our ruinous greed for oil is trapping us, and he makes a compelling argument for rounding up all your possessions, chucking them on the front lawn, and setting them alight.
There are some existential questions raised that won’t be answered in the space-time of a show, but McIntyre’s encounter is fascinating and well worth exploring further, and the technology used to tell his story is wondrous. Sit back and let the sounds take you to a place you might never physically go, and if you can find one of those special frogs on the way to the show, well then so much the better.
The Encounter runs at His Majesty’s Theatre until 25 Feb. For tickets and more information, visit the PIAF website here.