|Simon McBurney in The Encounter|
I first saw Simon McBurney perform in Edinburgh, 30 years ago, in A Minute Too Late – Complicite’s smash-hit show about death. He was amazing – I’ve followed his work ever since. The Encounter is his most brilliant piece of work yet.
A Minute Too Late was largely a response to the death of Simon’s father – and in this new piece, his father is present again, as a ghostly trace surviving only on a solitary VHS tape. His children are present too, particularly his six-year old daughter, whose recorded voice is so clear as Simon addresses an empty space that her presence is palpable. His work often has this deeply personal element to it – like Robert Lepage, even maybe Yeats, he is happy to employ his art as a confessional, or perhaps a therapeutic space. So, after 30 years, I feel that I know him intimately. We have actually had two conversation – once when he came to see Nixon in China, and once on a tube, where we talked about working in Asia. He is as shy, nervy and endearingly anxious in person as he seems on stage.
For me, The Encounter was particularly powerful because it represents an encounter with indigenous people, the Mayoruna of the Amazon to be precise. On one level, it’s the story of an encounter between them and the National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre. On another, it’s Simon’s own encounter with the same people. Always a believer in authenticity, he retraced McIntyre’s steps in making the show. And, on another level, it is our encounter – with Simon, with McIntyre, with the story, and so with the Mayoruna too. And that makes it an encounter with ourselves as well: as Simon says at the start of the show, we are defined by the stories that we tell, by the narratives into which we invest ourselves. By immersing ourselves in this story, allowing ourselves on some level to experience the very different world of the Mayoruna, we become slightly different people. I would say, better people. People with an expanded and deepened humanity.
Much of the discussion about this performance has centred on the technology, and it’s true that it is amazing. Even for someone like me - whose hearing difficulty means he can’t use the binaural headphones and has to have the whole thing channelled into one ear – the quality of the sound experience is incredible. In an epic space like the Barbican, the acting can be incredibly intimate and personal, as if Simon were inside your head. Which, in a way, he is.
Because The Encounter is also about the possibilities of human communication. During his time with the Mayoruna, cut off from his own world, McIntyre was convinced that the Elder, whom he nicknamed Barnacle, was talking to him in a language he could understand. He heard Barnacle speaking inside his head, telepathically, without any words being uttered or language being used. The narrative would seem to suggest that this communication was real: what McIntyre heard Barnacle say was always true.
This kind of strange experience is not all that uncommon in relation to indigenous cultures. There are different ways of thinking, being and relating in other people’s worlds, which may well involve phenomena we do not yet know through science. There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy. When he talked about the piece on the radio, Simon said that he’d spoken to the Mayoruna about the idea of consciousness, asking them where they understood their sense of self to be. Every time he asked this, in whatever way, they pointed to the forest. If the self is not in the head but in the environment, then maybe it’s only a small step to communicate between two selves within that wider consciousness.
Is this a form of magic? Certainly the show is magical – it has the alchemic quality of theatre, transforming things into other things. At the start, Simon is very careful to explain how it’s all done, how the technology works. Through the two hours, we watch him working it. We can see how it’s done. And that’s what is really magical about this piece – that the magic comes from our imaginative collusion, or complicity, in this transformative process. It is an act of faith, just like that which McIntyre placed in Barnacle. A faith that saved his life.
And yes – I know it’s usually “your philosophy” – but the First Folio says “our” and I prefer it. Hamlet counts himself amongst the ignorant – as any thinking person surely must.