'The Encounter' review or 'Look at me when I'm speaking to you.'

The Encounter, Simon McBurney/Complicite
Barbican Theatre, 16th February 2016

I’m not a spiritual person – but there are moments in Simon McBurney’s show, ‘The Encounter’, when I felt like I was beginning to believe. Quite what I was beginning to believe in I’m not sure – but this mesmerising production touches on something bigger than us all. It’s been in development for about 20 years, ever since McBurney read about photographer Loren McIntryre’s extraordinary experience with the Mayoruna people, an indigenous and language-free tribe that lives deep within the Brazilian jungle. McIntyre’s and McBurney’s stories have been folded together with the help of rippling projections and binaural recordings (relayed to us via headphones), which create the impression of a 3D world creeping about our head. The result is a show that feels so much thicker, deeper and richer than most – a show in which time bends and snaps, our thoughts take on a strangely physical presence and language is replaced with instinct, feeling and compassion.

This is officially a one person show – McBurney stands alone on stage – but the technical expertise required here is off the charts, as sound (designed by Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin) and light (from Paul Anderson) and visuals (by set designer Michael Levine and projection designer Will Duke) merge with hypnotic grace. The invisibility of these technical performers ties in neatly with the themes twinkling amid this show – the idea that isolation isn’t quite what we think it is (look at the concealed life contained within those brackets and hidden behind the scenes!); the idea that we are never alone (‘Encounter’ is a solitary experience but what about the audience sitting in silence around us?) and the idea that the world is a lot wider and weirder, denser and more surprising than we give it credit; we just have to know where to look and how to listen.

On one level, ‘The Encounter’ is simply a brilliant feat in story-telling. It’s a joy to listen to McBurney tie together the various story strands with his vibrant script (he is such an exacting wordsmith), audio trickery and visual shimmers. But the real achievement here is the way that McBurney merges the technical and spiritual side of his show and allows his ideas – and the way in which those ideas are expressed – to perform a nimble and dazzling dance together.

The binaural recordings are created in real-time by McBurney’s frenetic activity, as he darts between various microphones on-stage – and are also pre-recorded. On a basic level, these recordings allow McBurney to create countless characters and creatures: he is the husky-voiced American McIntyre, scared and entranced by what he has found; he is the squawking and rustling of the jungle; he is the Mayoruna people stamping and dancing around a crackling fire or he is McBurney’s daughter back home, keen for her dad to stop working and keep her company instead.

But these sound-games also chip away at us on a much deeper level. We begin to feel different inside. Our brains become possessed by other voices – spirits you might call them – and our mind takes on a strange, physical dimension. Our thoughts come from around, behind, above and below us; they rumble in from the past or echo down from the future. We seem to contain all of time inside of us.

This personal expansion – and it really is quite spooky and moving, as we feel our heads physically expand – is mimicked and enhanced by both the stories and visuals on stage. As McIntyre moves deeper into the jungle he learns to communicate with the tribesmen not with language but through an instinctive form of telepathy. All of our minds grow in strange new ways together. Projections on the back of the stage begin to ripple: a river flows lengthways and not downwards, a dream seems to reach through life and towards something beyond the normal fabric of life. We watch projected shadows of the tribesmen dance and the past and present swirl about and bump up against each other creating something rich and beautiful, passing yet permanent.