Simon McBurney’s one-man show The Encounter is a journey into the Amazon and the nature of consciousness, using theatre itself as a metaphor for memory.
“People are always mistaking fiction for reality”, Simon McBurney deadpanned, as the late stragglers filed into the auditorium for his one-man show, The Encounter. He had been scrolling through photos of his daughter on his phone, remarking that she would one day confuse them for her own memories. But he was also playing with metanarrative: was this seemingly casual banter spontaneous, a way for McBurney to engage with those of us that showed up on time? Or had the show already begun? Having spent the last five minutes adjusting and testing my headset, which I’d understood would be integral to the production, it seemed unfathomable that it could it all start without the headset, with McBurney simply talking to us.
The blurred line between fiction and reality is the real subject of The Encounter — though the plot itself is fascinating enough. It tells the story of National Geographic photographer Lorne McIntyre who got lost deep in the Amazon in 1970, only to have an ‘encounter’ with the previously-uncontacted Mayoruna tribe. Because McIntyre was alone, and he had no photographic or audio evidence of ‘the encounter’, was it real? Without documentation, what differentiates his story from fiction? What better medium to explore this question in than live theatre, which is by nature ephemeral. What happens in the room between the performer and the audience can only happen once. When it’s over, it only exists in the memories of its participants.
McBurney takes this idea one step further, using theatre itself as a metaphor for memory. Memories aren’t tangible things but the result of synaptic connections: they only exist when we pull them out to revisit them, and in so doing alter them. Similarly, a piece of live theatre is all based on the same script, blocking, and direction, yet it’s a little different every night. It only exists when the audience is there, working with the theatremakers to create this memory, and it changes a bit each night. We often think of film as the medium for exploring memory and dreams because it’s so easy to conjure surreal images and edit flashes of thought together. But film is frozen in time and shape, the same every time you revisit it; watching theatre is an active process of engaging, where no two performances are quite the same.
Sound, delivered to each audience member directly via the headsets, is the key to the immersion in The Encounter. Using a binaural microphone (a large head on a stand on stage) makes us privy to what we would hear directly if we were on stage where the microphone is. By getting McBurney’s voice right into our ears, and surrounding us with the soundscape of the jungle, we feel like we’re there.
Because the show is about what differentiates the real from the imagined, McBurney takes great pains to reveal how this achieved. As McBurney prepares to send us into the jungle, he builds up a soundscape, shaking a half-filled water bottle, walking around the binaural microphone with his recording of mosquitos buzzing (which is itself manufactured rather than the sound of actual mosquitoes). He shows us how he uses a looping pedal to build up layers of sound. But by the time there are three or more sounds in tandem, you’re lost in the jungle, convinced the mosquitoes are buzzing around your head. As McIntyre gets delirious in the heat and humidity, lost in this unknown land, it’s a surreal experience for us, too.
The headsets serve another purpose, too: to get us so close to the narrator that it actually mimics the experience of recalling a memory. When we hear McBurney’s narration in our ears, it’s as if he’s telling the story to us inside our heads, the way you might recall a story to yourself. He may be many feet away from us, on the stage, and yet he feels like he’s right there with us. Sometimes, he speaks to us as McIntyre, through a microphone that distorts his voice into a lower register. This takes us directly to the time and place of the encounter so that we too feel that we are in McIntyre’s shoes. McBurney also goes one meta level up, with his voice unaltered but speaking as though it’s McIntyre recalling the past, while McBurney’s body, on stage, re-enacts McIntyre’s experiences and emotions. Now, we feel like we’re watching McIntyre’s memory while perched on his shoulder.
You could experience The Encounter without watching it, losing yourself in the soundscape — and I often did. But you’d miss McBurney’s performance, the way the stage itself starts to feel like the jungle, and the knowledge of just how the illusion is being created. McBurney is physically active when McIntyre is, as affected by the harshness of a thunderstorm as McIntrye would be in the jungle A fog machine is in regular use to remind us what it’s like to be somewhere where the boundaries are invisible and everything is unknown. Subtle lighting cues on the black backdrop alternately create the feeling of trees, through dispersed green light, lightning, or merely the feeling of sunset.
Sound and image also bring us close to Simon himself and his experience of creating the production we’re watching. McBurney weaves his own story throughout the production. We repeatedly return to an evening he’s spending at home with his daughter, who keeps interrupting his preparations for the theatre piece that would become The Encounter. The only furniture on set is McBurney’s desk and chair, which are meant to be in his London home, where he’s working through the night on what would become The Encounter while caring for his daughter. A recording of his real daughter’s voice stands in for the imagined daughter he interacts with on stage: he looks down at empty space, but we’re absolutely convinced his child is there. It grounds us in Simon’s reality, and yet we are also aware that McBurney is actually in a room in San Francisco in 2017, playing a version of himself, in London, in the past. It’s yet another reminder that everything we are watching is in fact a product of McBurney’s imagination, that he is recreating with us and for us McIntyre’s memory of his experience.
When The Encounter was staged in London at the Barbican, last year, the performance was recorded. It will stream free online around the world for one week from May 19 to 25 (7 p.m. BST). I tend to be a strong proponent of recorded theatre, a nascent medium, which aims to make theatre in faraway places accessible to people around the world. But recording theatre always involves curated information loss: which performances do we prioritize, which parts of the stage do we see, which details are highlighted. I can see how the immersive sound design could still be experienced through a recording, but the premise of the production seems so counter to the concept of recorded theatre. The show is about the ephemeral nature of experiences and memories, how things can only happen once, in this room, at this one time — and then it’s gone. Because it is so much about the nature of consciousness and memory, the metanarratives are as important as the plot. If the show is about the experience of being in a room with someone, how can this translate to a recording, when the whole point is that it couldn’t be documented?
Recorded theatre separates you from the audience watching the show, from the meta elements of the theatre: you can’t experience an actor looking right at you, adjusting his performance to your reaction. The intellectual journey you experience in The Encounter is a product of a visceral one: if you can’t feel the immediacy of being with McBurney in that room and then with him with McIntyre in the jungle, how can you meditate on its ideas about memory and perception? In The Encounter, as with so many of the great works of theatre (Headlong’s People, Places, and Things comes to mind), the medium is the message. Change the medium, and you’ve lost the message.
You can stream The Encounter for one week from May 19 (7 p.m. BST) to 25 here.