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Review: The Encounter @ Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub

Simon McBurney’s The Encounter has been blowing audiences away since it premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival last summer. Now, on one of the few UK stops on an extensive international tour, McBurney’s one-man show, made in conjunction with Complicite, has alighted at the Oxford Playhouse in what is undoubtedly a bit of a coup for the theatre. There is no other way of putting it: it is simply a matchless privilege to experience this ground-breaking piece of twenty-first century storytelling at one’s local playhouse.

On a purely technical level, The Encounter is an astonishingly intricate achievement. McBurney – and, it must be added, his team of sound engineers – have created a rich soundscape from a mixture of live and recorded noise that, when relayed to the audience through individual headsets, is remarkably real. Breathy pipe music, the babble of running water, and the multifarious cries of a million different animals transport one to the wild heart of the Amazonian rainforest. McBurney, making use of a totemic binaural microphone in the shape of a head, creates much of the soundscape live, turning the slosh of a water bottle into a muddy footstep and the rustling of a crisp packet into the crackling of a fire.

But in addition to this engrossing manipulation of sound and sense, the story McBurney tells is fascinating in itself. Based on Petru Popescu’s book Amazon Beaming, it follows the experiences of American photojournalist Loren McIntyre, who lost himself amongst an uncontacted indigenous Amazonian tribe, the Mayaruna, in the late sixties. Through a mixture of narration and acting, McBurney charts McIntyre’s journey, from his first arrival in the rainforest by light aircraft, to his tentative attempts to communicate with the Mayaruna, to his viscerally hallucinogenic rituals with them, and out the other side. It is a riveting story that penetrates to the very core of the human experience, made all the more compelling by McBurney’s intelligent and immersive use of sound.

The Encounter is a fiercely intelligent show, bursting with ideas about identity, about society, about life and ultimately about time itself. On one level, it is a coruscating attack on modern civilisations dependence on materialism and commerce; in one heart-poundingly exciting sequence, McBurney tears the stage around him apart in a blistering rage against all the meaningless belongings limiting our existence. But on another level entirely, it is a metaphysical exploration of the fabric of reality itself; as the overpowering sound through the headphones disorients entirely, McBurney doesn’t just recreate McIntyre’s intoxicating experience of a Mayaruna ‘time-travelling’ ritual, he ‘tears open a corner of the universe’ and exposes the cosmic anarchy underneath for the audience as well.

In truth, it is difficult to articulate the complexity of McBurney’s show on paper; it has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Perhaps it is best to just reiterate what audiences and critics across Europe have confirmed already: McBurney has created a swelteringly intense, bewitchingly clever two hours of theatre that shakes one’s preconceptions about the universe to their foundations. It is, quite simply, a life-altering encounter.

5/5

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