THE ENCOUNTER: Complicite/Simon McBurney, Barbican Centre

Simon McBurney in The Encounter; Photography © Murdo MacLeod

If you haven’t already been to see The Encounter at London’s Barbican Centre, you’d better try for returns this evening. Otherwise, you’ll need to tune into the live stream (with headphones) or catch the rest of the tour to witness this masterpiece of storytelling…

Complicite’s The Encounter maps a journey: the discovery of an ‘uncontacted’ Amazonian tribe seen through the eyes of the photographer Loren McIntyre. The tale was retold by writer Petru Popescu in his book, Amazon Beaming, now adapted for the stage in a wholly unique manner by Simon McBurney and Complicite. It is wonderful that this piece became a reality after several years of research and development. What with the free-form approach this company so bravely takes to producing new work, it could well have ended up on the scrap heap; to quote Kirsty Housley (Co-Director, The Encounter), “there’s quite often no endgame.” Thankfully, for the general public, The Encounter is very much alive and kicking.

McBurney’s performance is a tour de force… but then so is the work of the sound and lighting teams. Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin are responsible for the extraordinary sonic vision of this production, while a team of three operators (headed by the wonderful Helen Skiera, who I had the utter pleasure of working with three years ago) take charge of the live technical wizardry. Paul Anderson’s lighting and Will Duke’s projection are perfectly judged too. Together, it makes for a masterful piece of storytelling. The narrative high points are paralleled by spine-tingling sonic-visual climaxes, some of which are genuinely affecting to experience. For all the dramatic intensity of McIntyre’s journey within the play, The Encounter never feels excessively heavy. The innovative use of binaural technology to play sonic games on the audience — not to mention some genius smash cuts to everyday conversations between McBurney and his 7-year old daughter — brings a real sense of curiosity to the play and provides an unexpected counterpoint to the intensity of McIntyre’s story.

On leaving the Barbican Theatre, I realised: what comes across as a masterful piece of theatre marked by an economy of means is yet another illusion… as McBurney noted after his umpteenth curtain call, there is a whole team of talent on hand to bring this unique play to life every night. A uniquely memorable 2 hours. Go.