In Shakespeare’s day, the audience would refer to going to “hear a play” rather than see it. Complicité’s streamed production The Encounter seems to be trying to resurrect that notion. It places sound firmly front and centre (literally) to create an assault on the ears the like of which I can guarantee you will have never experienced before. If you’re not sure what the term “immersive theatre” means, then begin here.
It is perhaps unusual to start a review by referencing the sound designers, but in this instance, it is fully justified; Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin’s soundscape is nothing short of a triumph and, even should you find nothing to engross you about the storyline, it is worth watching this piece just for the aural experience alone.
Headphone wearing is absolutely essential, though, being a collective experience, it must have been odd to sit in a theatre completely isolated from everybody else; in fact, this production may well work better in the home environment. The opening sequence when the intricacies of the system are explained is delightful. It put me in mind of albums that could be purchased in the late Sixties, often called something like This Is Stereo (or Quadrophonic), which introduced listeners to a brave new world of sound. This is intelligent referencing as the main narrative takes place in 1969. It is also clever on another level as solo performer Simon McBurney puts us through our paces making us think that the show proper has yet to begin, when in fact it already has.
McBurney’s performance is the second extraordinary thing about this production. Starting as a narrator, he also assumes the character of the protagonist, American photojournalist Loren McIntyre, who set out to capture a record of the “lost” people of the Mayoruna in a remote area of Brazil. He holds the stage for two hours in a punishing routine which sees him whirling around the vast Barbican stage becoming increasingly frenzied, almost demonic. His voice is instantly recorded, replicated and looped to create the background soundwash over which he narrates the main story. Extensive use is made of Foley techniques as he tramples unspooled video tape to replicate footsteps and sloshes bottles of water to suggest the lap of the river water. At one point a rustling crisp packet leads to a sequence in which a crackling fire rips through the Mayoruna encampment. McBurney is therefore not only writer, director, narrator and actor but also sound technician, composer and conductor orchestrating the increasingly frantic and nightmarish soundtrack – I felt exhausted just watching him.