Complicité’s acclaimed show The Encounter seems tailor-made to enjoy in isolation, with its use of intimate binaural technology. Artistic director Simon McBurney talks to Kate Wyver about getting into audiences’ heads and the ritual of theatre as something that binds us together
“How are the birds?” Simon McBurney asks. "Loud", I say, "beautiful". “Yes,” the actor, writer and artistic director of theatre company Complicité hums in his thoughtful, growling voice. “Sometimes I get up at dawn to listen. It’s just sensational.”
Isolating with his family, McBurney is getting to grips with homeschooling – “I’ve got about three English classes going at once” – and making jam for his local pub-turned-shop. “I’m thinking of changing profession”. Meanwhile, his hit 2016 show, The Encounter, is about to have another life.
A “flawlessly executed” (Time Out), “aural labyrinth” (New York Times) achieving “visceral intensities” (Guardian), The Encounter is a tantalising tale of getting lost, the tricksiness of time, and desperately searching for a sense of connection. The show was a hit at the Edinburgh International Festival, at the Barbican in London, and later, on Broadway. From May 15 to 22, Complicité is streaming The Encounter online for free.
In the solo piece, McBurney interweaves the true story of Loren McIntyre – a National Geographic photographer who met the previously un-encountered Mayoruna tribe on the border of Brazil and Peru in 1969 – with his own process of making the show. It is a philosophical, shape-shifting, mind-jolting performance, with pioneering use of sound design.
The stage is largely empty, save for a desk, a scattering of plastic bottles and a long pole topped with a binaural microphone in the shape of a human head as the audience sat in the auditorium listening through headphones. This binaural technology captures sound in 360 degrees, allowing McBurney to speak directly into an audience member’s left ear or, if he moves over to the other side, into their right.
‘I wanted people to take an inner voyage’
It’s alarmingly intimate; you swear you can feel his breath millimetres away from you and sense his voice crawling into your skull. “The use of the binaural head places you in the middle of the stage,” he says, “and places me in the middle of your head. I wanted to find a way in which people could experience being in the mind of somebody else. I wanted people to take an inner voyage.”
When audiences watch the recorded version of The Encounter at home, they too must listen through headphones. “Very often when you watch theatre online,” McBurney says, “you get a double sense of remove, because not only are you not in the audience, but you’re kind of behind and beyond them.”
This show stands apart. “You experience it in exactly the same way – in terms of the way you listen – to how you experience it in the auditorium.” At home with your regular, knotted old headphones, you still feel him blow into your ear, still hear his footsteps behind you. You are still thrown by the thrown voices.
Every so often in the play, McBurney’s daughter interrupts. Her voice, full of curiosity, drags us back out of the complex layers of story, returning us to ourselves. Life imitates art; there’s some scuffing on the end of the phone as his youngest interrupts to give him a glass of juice. “I missed lunch,” he says. “I need some vitamins. I find I can spend the whole day eating toast.”
Part of what makes McBurney such a riveting storyteller – and a delightful interviewee – is that his brain jumps from microscopic inspection to grand, almost cosmic imaginings within a moment. Considering how theatre may integrate technology after the current crisis, he goes silent for a few seconds, then leaps back 150,000 years. “My father was a pre-historian,” he begins, “and I heard him using the word ‘technology’ from when I was a child. What he meant was the way that early man took two stones and knocked one against the other to produce a sharp blade. That’s what he called technology. All of these things,” he says, referring to theatre’s use of masks, sound and lights, “are simply tools.
Theatre has always used whatever is to hand in order to take people elsewhere, in order to tell stories. If people were sitting around the fire, they would have used the shadows, the sparks. They would have used the way the light played on their face coming up from below, sinking their eyes. Anything to hand that heightens the experience is absolutely critical. So it has been all the way through history.” And so, he suggests, will it continue to be.
“The key thing in theatre,” he says, “is how it is a sense of repeated ritual. We do the same thing night after night, not expecting things to change, but repeating the ritual because it binds us together. Above everything, what I hope is that with this piece – but also with all theatre, however you use the technology and however theatre evolves or changes – you come away with a sense of greater interconnectivity and community than you had before.”
‘Perhaps the effect of isolation is to call things into question’
The Encounter invites audiences to get lost, both with McBurney and with McIntyre, and to stick around and explore. “Everything about our culture is called into question,” McBurney says of McIntyre’s journey. “So, perhaps the effect of isolation is to call things into question. I would say that’s close to my experience of lockdown. It has become a huge period of reflection.
We have asked ourselves a great many questions. How will it end? How will we be changed when we come back into what is mistakenly called ‘normal life’? Because it is clear – above everything else – that we need to begin again.”