This may not have been a brief encounter, but it was brilliant! According to Simon McBurney, the Amazon rainforest has no regard for western time frames, and neither, apparently, does he. The Encounter took several years to write, or rather, to create, and the result relies almost entirely on sound. Each seat in the Old Vic’s main theatre is fitted with a set of headphones that feeds McBurney’s voice into our ears. The textured foam backdrop that stretches up to the ceiling not only provides a dry environment for the sound, but also allows for the clever light design to reflect both the weather, and the protagonist’s ever worsening mind set.
The play follows the biography of a National Geographic photographer whose trip to the Amazon in a bid to document a previously elusive tribe, goes horribly wrong. The opening of the play suggests that he is a seasoned traveller, well acquainted with the terrain he is documenting. Upon sighting a native, he follows them enthusiastically into the forest in pursuit of the photograph that will define his career, and gets completely lost. During the next hour and a half, we watch as he engages in an ever escalating game of cat and mouse with villagers who simultaneously lead him closer and closer to his end goal, while slowly stripping him of his western equipment, until he is left almost shoeless.
McBurney uses an incredibly high tech surround sound system including a Seinheiser binaural head microphone to slip into the audience’s mind. This, as it turns out, mirrors the experience of his protagonist, Loren McIntyre, who communicates with the chief of the tribe almost entirely through what seems to be telepathy. As the play progresses, he loses touch with the western concept of time, linear or otherwise, and discovers new ways of communicating with the people around him. The play raises many questions about the culpability of the colonial aftermath in the Amazon region, and where those who have access to technology, must draw the line between documentation and invasion.
His camera is quite literally, stolen by a monkey, and one must wonder if that was an early sign that nature was destined to take over. McBurney pushes his incredibly sparse set to the limit of its representational capacity; the camera film, for example, doubles as both the only active representation of the outside world, and the sound effects for everything from rustling trees, to the Amazon River. Careful as McIntyre is to respect the boundaries of the tribe, the conundrum of whether to release the photos (which is the point of the trip) plagues him throughout the show. It’s a show about exposure on every level imaginable; technical, cultural, and psychological. Without the photos, and without a clear memory of what he is actually hearing, McIntyre can never be sure what is real, and what is the product of jungle fever, and by the end of the play, neither are we. It’s a rare breed of a show that manages to be enthralling, immersive, and totally invasive, all at once.
Review written by Madeleine Golding.
The Encounter was shown at the Bristol Old Vic from Friday 18th to Sunday 20th September. The production is currently on tour around the UK, for more information, visit here…