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McBurney's The Encounter points visitor #HF16 to a different way of life

The Encounter, a large-scale solo performance by British multi-talent Simon McBurney, had its Dutch premiere at the Holland Festival on Thursday. The Encounter combines the dramatic power of a Hollywood blockbuster with the polished simplicity of 20th-century, stripped-down, edited - call it Brechtian - theatre.

Tension and thrills set the tone. But while McBurney grabs his audience by the scruff of the neck with an aurally generated 'enhanced reality', in the best British radio play traditions, he also confronts them with an unusually intimate encounter between men. Men who live in completely different worlds and are normally not supposed to actually interact. And not just because of language barriers and prejudice.

Indeed, beneath the thrilling account of an expedition to the Amazon lies the extremely painful fact of the Conquista, the colonisation of South America by the Spanish. It links men in a bloody history of exploitation and war. A political history that continues into the present day, as McBurney kindly remarked from the stage after a standing ovation.

The Encounter, Complicite / Simon McBurney, photo: Robbie Jack

An informal chat with the packed Rabo Hall of the Stadsschouwburg about turning off phones and people arriving late is the sophisticated opening to the impressive account of the adventures of National Geographic-photographer Loren McIntyre, who in 1971 went in search of the source of the Amazon River and ended up at the Mayoruna in Peru, an encounter that did not leave the man cold.

McBurney stacks in The Encounter ingeniously crafting stories and situations and thus morphs the usual concept of time and place. The scene in Amsterdam becomes McBurney's study in London and the Peruvian jungle, where McIntyre has to find his way and wonders if he will make it out alive. Different times get mixed up. The two hours of the show become a night in the house in London, but also several weeks in life with the Mayoruna in Peru and ultimately a story about returning to the beginning of the world.

The Encounter, Complicit / Simon McBurney, photo: Alex Aitchison
The Encounter, Complicite / Simon McBurney, photo: Alex Aitchison

On the virtually empty stage, McBurney plays not only himself, but also the American McIntyre and Câmbio, a Portuguese-speaking Mayoruna, who has a key role in the adventures. But the most important encounter in The Encounter is nevertheless a well-nigh wordless one: already on day one of his expedition, McIntyre gets off track and has to survive in the midst of a group of jungle-dwelling Mayoruna. A mysterious, call it telepathic, contact then gradually develops between him and the tribal leader, whom he christens Barnacle.

The Encounter, Simon McBurney, photo: GianMarco Bresadola.
The Encounter, Simon McBurney, photo: GianMarco Bresadola.

The encounters played out through the body of the sometimes intensely acting, then quietly narrating McBurney, are then further embedded in a chorus of other voices. Authentic sound clips interrupt the action. For example, McBurney is in conversation with his friend and writer Petru Popoescu, who published McIntyre's story twenty years later in his book Amazon Beaming. McBurney's little daughter also wanders into the play with some regularity because she cannot sleep and asks for a story or wants something to eat. All this through the headphones, where recordings and live sound come together in an effective mix. Switching perspectives in this way over and over again is extremely sensitively and ingeniously done and, in the constant stream of interrupting voices and situations, delivers precisely the naturalness of everyday complexity.

The encounter takes the simplicity of an exciting bedtime story as the starting point for a complex mix of perspectives on a visit to an indigenous tribe, far away from what was once called the 'civilised world'. Exoticism, thrills and suspense, survival in the jungle, communicating with people whose language you don't speak and whose gestures you can initially only guess at - these are elements of the 19th-century adventure novel, which has found its 20th-century successor in the Hollywood spectacle of types like Indiana Jones.

Photo: GianMarco Bresadola
The Encounter, Complicit / Simon McBurney, photo: GianMarco Bresadola.

The innocence that accompanies McBurney's theatre is ambiguous. He says it literally: "this is all imagination", "it's all tricks to make you believe", but it is clear from everything that he assumes that it is precisely the power of imagination that can bring people closer together, right through the painful legacy of colonisation and exploitation. And here runs The Encounter away from the average blockbuster about yet another hero who manages to survive savages, monsters and natural disasters, its usual tools has to miss out and even manages to get by with hastily learned Stone Age techniques.

The intimacy created by tethering the entire audience to headphones not only increases the intensity of the experience, but also alludes to a general message in the The Encounter. Al it is not voluntary, McIntyre surrenders to a different understanding of the world, an understanding that stems from a time and place of life, which Western colonisation has all but destroyed. McBurney makes it clear how important it is to tell that story, and that can only be done by listening carefully and allowing the many voices.

And that is perhaps the innovative thing about The Encounter, that it is the beau monde which populates theatre halls in Western Europe and also came in large numbers to the Holland Festival on Thursday, tries to point out a precarious way of life, from which we might learn something, if we dared to make sincere contact and could leave behind the defensive notion of 'the noble savage' or 'the inimitable other'.

Good to know
The Encounter can still be seen at the Holland Festival on Saturday night 11 and Sunday afternoon 12 June. For tickets and information, see here. Complicite has an extensive website with background information at The Encounter.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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