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Simon McBurney: ‘Theatre only exists in the eyes and minds of the audience’

Simon McBurney. Photo: Eva Vermandel Simon McBurney. Photo: Eva Vermandel

It’s safe to say that an interview with Simon McBurney, like an evening at one of his shows, is a challenging experience. He’s not confrontational – far from it, he is quiet and sweet natured – but he is brooding, distracted and intense by turns. He will suddenly go quiet, sometimes for what feels like minutes but in fact is probably 30 to 40 seconds, as he rolls around a thought in his head.

The actor Kathryn Hunter, who has regularly worked with Complicite (including on the Olivier award-winning The Visit), described those silences in her own piece on McBurney: “It is a strange feature of Simon that he can just fall into those immense silences. He’s often on an interior emotional rollercoaster in those silences. Those of us who love him, just wait…”

She added: “I remember the first time I met him, it struck me that he was an incredibly ugly man, and then as soon as I got to know him he became incredibly beautiful. That only happens with a very few extraordinary people.”

The man opposite me in a Covent Garden coffee shop is too familiar – from his countless theatre shows for Complicite (the company he co-founded in 1983 and still heads), at venues including the National and Barbican, as well as regular appearances in film and TV series such as Rev – for me to think about his looks. He’s certainly memorable, with strands of hair sprouting in multiple directions, partly thanks to the bicycle helmet he’s just taken off.

You could describe it as the mad professor look, and he sounds like one when holding forth about the meaning of time and issues of consciousness. It’s almost like being in a philosophy class at Cambridge – the university he went to, and the city where he grew up.

When I ask McBurney about his formative years, he gives a typically convoluted reply, but one that goes to the root of who he is.

“One of my problems with answering a question like that is that all these things are so deeply interconnected. One of the biggest influences on my life was my mother and father, since they brought me up. My father was an archaeologist and my mother passionately wanted to be an actress, so she wrote plays for me when I was little and made costumes for my school plays. But I would also say that a most profound influence was the eccentric people I grew up with in Cambridge, a deeply strange set of people who were repositories of information and had extraordinary abilities to connect things in ways that the internet will never do, where it is always so scattergun.” They included Oliver Rackham, who died last year and wrote The History of the Countryside. “Every fourth or fifth month EM Forster would come to have Sunday lunch with us. There’s a picture of us in the garden with me holding his hand.”

Theatre and nature have played a large part in McBurney’s life. They combine in his latest production The Encounter, a one-man show that premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival to rave reviews last summer and which is now coming to the Barbican for an already sold-out run. “My parents had a profound influence in terms of our experience of nature, which for me is fundamentally important and has come out in this particular show.”

The Encounter is based on the book Amazon Beaming, which he was given by the director Annie Castledine (whom he cites as an ongoing influence in his life) when it was first published more than 20 years ago. Written by Petru Popescu, it tells the story of photographer Loren McIntyre, who, in 1969, found himself lost among the remote people of the Javari Valley, on the border between Brazil and Peru.

“Everyone has a list of different things they want to do, and turning this into a play remained on mine. There was something fundamental in it, but I didn’t know how to bring it out so that it should feel immediate and necessary for an audience. All I knew is that it wasn’t a piece that could be performed conventionally as a piece of theatre.”

He was finally led to a form with which to approach it, after developing Complicite’s 1999 show Mnemonic.

“When I did Mnemonic, I became fascinated with the process of memory and biochemistry of memory. It led me to an interest in mind-body concerns, and to thinking about consciousness and this curious thing – that Mark Shenton has a feeling that he is in there and Simon McBurney has the sensation that he is here and that we aren’t anywhere but in our bodies discussing the things we discuss. Necessarily consciousness is something that is very fascinating to human beings, because we’re so aware of our own mortality and the loss of consciousness. Where is Alan Rickman now? Physically, he has ceased to exist and yet he is extremely present to me. All of these things and the subjective experience of consciousness fascinated me. And as I started to think about it, I found there was an enormous interconnection with this book. On a very simple level, because it’s about a man like you or me who is within the nexus of Western conscious thought, with all the fictions of the world – and he’s placed in a context where all of those are called into question. He discovers that thoughts about communication and time can take another form. It places a very big question for him about the nature of the world.”

It led McBurney to a big question about form and content, with the show’s sound delivered into personal headphones that each spectator wears.

“The form in which I am telling it and the choice of using the microphones and headphones was really because I wanted the form and content to be inseparable. But it also worried me considerably because when we go to the theatre we don’t always put on headphones, and therefore it could be seen as what my mother would have called a gimmick, when she went to certain other shows. But it is fundamentally not a gimmick, because it is essential to the experience of the piece. It’s about solitude, and I want Mark Shenton to feel that he is alone, and therefore to be able to place yourself in the situation of the protagonist and not just to be able to sit back and watch him and say he had a tough time, but for you to wonder physically: what does that feel like? At the same time, there’s the paradox of sitting in an audience where they are all collectively and individually experiencing this. The sense of isolation when they wear headphones seems to capture that paradox.”

The inquisitive spirit doesn’t end there. “The piece also raises questions about empathy and the way we connect one to another. I raise this question through an observation of my children when I read to them and a memory of myself as a child when I was read to. When I turn a page and there are two people in it, they will immediately say, ‘That’s me.’ There’s something about the intimacy and proximity of reading aloud that induces that empathy – where you can immediately imagine yourself into the life of someone else. I wanted to try to imitate that proximity and intimacy. Of course I can’t get into bed with all of the audience to tell them a story – instead, I take the form of the microphone, which allows me to be more intimate and not shout at people.”

The technology, McBurney stresses, is in service of the storytelling, not the other way around. “I feel that it is constantly important to recognise that these things we have are tools, like a flint tool – but I’m aware that we have to be very careful so that they are not dominating us rather than us dominating them. Within the context of art, it’s important that artists, and not just bankers, use these objects and show people how technology can be something that can be liberating, taken and discarded and used in another way.”

Another intriguing point: the show is set in a society which has none of this technology. “They’re living in the most biodiverse place on the earth, but there’s an incredible paradox that they only have the simplest of tools and are obliged to make everything with their imaginations. All of this means that you produce a mesh in which one thing is inseparable from another.”


Q&A: Simon McBurney

What was your first job? I worked on a carnival in the north-eastern United States. I never waited around for a job – if nobody would have me, I would still perform on the street.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Not to be overawed by anybody – when I started I was always overawed by those I felt were well known and powerful.
Who or what is your biggest influence? My mother and father, but also the extraordinarily eccentric people I grew up with in Cambridge. More recently, John Berger has been a fantastically important influence on me. Like everyone I’m a magpie – we seize from others.
What’s your best advice for auditions? The same as my answer for what I wish someone had told me when I was starting out: don’t be afraid of anyone.
If you hadn’t been an actor/director, what would you have been? I would have devoted my life to anthropology, probably.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? I’m not worried about people saying things like Macbeth, but I have many theatrical rituals – I do certain sets of things in a particular order. I’m famous for rolling up £5 notes as if they were tubes to snort cocaine through – though I don’t! But I don’t like the word ‘superstition’ – I’m interested in the connections between what we think of as free will and what actually happens. As I get older, the less I feel I know and the more I think there is to know. I’m interested in the gaps between what we know and the unknowable and being open to those connections.

So are McBurney’s theatrical preoccupation and methods. In more than 30 years with Complicite, he has built a repertoire of shows, some of which he revisits from time to time. He mentions wanting to revisit Endgame, the Beckett play he performed in the West End with Mark Rylance a few years ago, and tells me that Rylance recently told him: “I still feel ashamed, I fucked it up for you.” But then he admits: “The truth is that with Richard Briers ducking out at the last minute, we just didn’t have enough time. I would like to go back and investigate it more. I think it was a good show but we could have gone even further, but that’s for another day and another time.”

Today, he is going on from our interview to revisit another previous work – a production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute for English National Opera that has recently reopened at the London Coliseum. This piece is full of characteristically bold decisions: from one side of the stage, an illustrator projects images on to a screen and from the other an onstage performer creates a soundscape of sound effects. The orchestra is elevated out of the pit so that the players sit just below the stage, in full view of the audience and singers: “That was closer to the 18th-century relationship between the orchestra and the singers, and both of them loved it. It was much more intimate, and the Coliseum has an extraordinarily deep pit so that there’s a strange relationship between the music and the stage. We can miss out on something with a composer like Mozart, but here it was very connected up musically, and I feel incredibly proud of it.” It is his second show for ENO, after the contemporary opera A Dog’s Heart in 2010, which he will be revisiting in Amsterdam next year.

His process is fastidious but constantly evolving. “You have the choice of making something on a horizontal line, doing one show after another after another; but equally if you stay with a thing, there is a line that can go further and further, and that is a vertical line, in which things get wider and wider – and deeper and deeper. There is another journey to life which doesn’t have to be a tyrannical 19th-century arrow of time, which is itself a fiction. It doesn’t exist – there is only this moment now, though we are aware that we are older than we were.”

He’s on another roll: “In fact, that seems to be a fundamental misconception about the physics of time. Almost all physics can be done without the ingredient of time. I was talking to Marcus de Sautoy, who helped me on this show. He is the professor for dissemination of scientific knowledge at Oxford University and he told me the truth is that we don’t really know what time is. It’s a story like other stories that helps us to organise our lives – it helped you and me to get here at 9 o’clock to meet this morning. But if we were tribal people in the Amazon basin, I might turn up two days later and that would be fine. Our division of things by time is a very western and relatively recent construct, and it’s one of the consequences of our cultural development.

“What is always interesting to me is to ask – as someone who is in the theatrical profession where you’re observing human nature – whether we are freely participating in this or whether in fact it is a product of something else that has nothing to do with you. You have the illusion that you’re making these choices, but you’re not, it’s a consequence of a culture that is a fiction and doesn’t exist outside our common imaginations.”


Simon McBurney’s top tips for aspiring actors and directors

• Know your enemy.

• Do not be afraid.

• Root yourself in life and nature, not just in the world of received culture and art. You have to go into the street and live life.

• If you want to direct, then you should direct – if it means you direct two children in a pantomime you’ve written yourself, do that; there are always opportunities.

• Don’t wait. But don’t rush, either.

I have to confess that my head is spinning at this point. How does McBurney control all these thoughts in his head – and simultaneously direct and perform the solo show that has sprung from his own imagination? “The glib answer is with difficulty. The truthful answer is that I’ve always made everything in collaboration with others, so that in a sense any piece is a collaborative action.  Nonetheless, you are dependent on what other people see. In the end, theatre only exists in the eyes of the audience, and eventually their minds – what do they imagine, what do they feel? You are in constant state of transmission. As an actor, you feel at your most powerful when that happens, whereby you are a vehicle to transmit something else that is on its way somewhere. That partly explains the nature of the actor’s fragile vanity – they are aware always how insubstantial their contribution truly is. Of course you get good actors and less good actors, but by and large the success or not of acting is the consequence of fortune.”

Good fortune has shone on McBurney more often than not. He has become a well-known actor, quite apart from his conceptual and directorial contributions to Complicite’s shows, and is a recognisable face in such major films as The Golden Compass, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, as well as TV series such as The Vicar of Dibley and Rev. Here he offers a note of pragmatism: “Doing films like Mission Impossible may give you the illusion that I’m paid vast sums of money, but I’m not, and I have three children, so unless I create a hit show on Broadway, I have to work really hard.”

Not that he’s complaining. “All my life, I can’t remember a year when I didn’t make theatre. I was always acting at school, so I never made a decision to go into theatre – I always knew that I could do it, and that it was like breathing for me. But I’ve also spent my whole life being disreputable and I’m still considered an outsider – I’m constitutionally disobedient.”

And without a word of explanation, he suddenly proves this by getting up and leaving the coffee shop. It turns out he had mislaid his bike helmet. When he finds it, he returns and we bid our goodbyes.

CV: Simon McBurney

Born: 1957, Cambridge
Training: Jacques Lecoq Institute, Paris
Landmark productions: For Complicite: The Visit (1989), the Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol (1994), Mnemonic (1999), A Disappearing Number (2007), The Encounter (2015), On Broadway: All My Sons (2008), On TV: The Vicar of Dibley, Rev, The Borgias, On film: The Theory of Everything (2014), Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
Awards: Perrier award (with More Bigger Snacks Now, 1985), Time Out theatre award and TMA award for best UK touring production for The Street of Crocodiles (1993), Olivier award for best choreographer for The Caucasian Chalk Circle (National Theatre, 1998), Critics’ Circle best new play award for Mnemonic (1999), Olivier, Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle best new play awards for A Disappearing Number (2007)
Agent: Conor McCaughan, Sam Fox, Troika Talent Agency

The Encounter runs at the Barbican Theatre, London, until March 6. The run is sold out, but at 7.30pm on March 1 it will be streamed live from the Barbican to Complicite’s website. It tours to Manchester’s Home from March 16-19 and Oxford Playhouse from May 25-28.

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