Written by Audio, Theatre

The Encounter

The Encounter is a tour de force piece from actor, writer and director Simon McBurney and the Complicite theatre company. I confess that I mostly knew McBurney from his acting roles including the excellent Archdeacon Robert in the wonderful Rev with Tom Hollander, but you soon realise how accomplished he is simply from this one production.

It is simply overwhelming, and all the more remarkable for being in essence a one-man show. It makes remarkable use of enveloping the audience in binaural sound, taking us on a journey into the depths of the Amazonian rainforest.

McBurney begins very casually, the houselights are still-up and he notes the latecomers still finding their seats. We are warned once again (we’ve already had many warnings) that we really should turn our phones off or put them in airplane mode. The reason is not just as a courtesy to the actor, but because phones will inevitably cause interference on our headsets if audience members are receiving calls or texts.

And slowly we drift into the story. McBurney is going to tell us about the National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre, who in 1969 was dropped off deep in the jungle by the side of the river on assignment to photograph the Mayoruna people. Very quickly he found them, or rather they found him, but he foolishly got lost, having left most of his kit by the riverbank. He realised that he was going to have to rely on this tribe that he shared no language skills with in order to survive.

The play is based on the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu which records McIntyre’s story. But we’re also getting McBurney’s own telling of the story including “interruptions” from his daughter as he tries to deliver it.

This is fundamentally a play that uses sound remarkably well. As I mentioned, it uses binaural sound, but it also mixes in elements of pre-recorded music and speech, live sound effects, pre-recorded sound effects, and a whole host of different microphones both worn by McBurney but also placed at a table on the stage in an almost studio setting.

At the start of the show the technology is explained a little to us. The audience is suddenly in awe of the power of binaural audio, the incredible ability it offers via our brains to “place” the audio source around our heads, and the way we can be tricked into experiencing things that aren’t there. Then pre-recorded elements are added. And there are loop machines on the floor to create broader multiplying sound mixes. As well as a theatrical experience this is all a technical accomplishment.

As the story gets deeper so the sound becomes more all-encompassing. It’s clear that Mayoruna people have some very different beliefs, particularly in relation to time. At certain points we’re suddenly brought back to the present with recordings of the familiar sound of Professor Marcus du Sautoy talking about time in relation to physics. At other points, McBurney uses a phone to play back clips of conversations with Petru Popescu relating what McIntyre had told him.

McBurney has also been to Brazil to meet some of the descendants of the people in McIntyre’s book. All of this is infused throughout the piece.

A word on the technology. This does not look to be a simple undertaking. Both the wing’s of the circle at the Barbican Theatre were taken up by massive units that deliver the sound to the audience. The audience itself is some 500-600 and each member has a pair of Sennheiser headphones wired into their seats to listen through. Test audio is played on a loop at the start of the show to ensure that everyone gets their left and right the correct way around, and ensuring that duff headsets can be replaced ahead of the performance.

The headphones are Sennheiser HP 02-100s, and the sound quality is excellent. While wiring is fiddly, you don’t suffer from the hiss that wireless headsets often include. Indeed Sound Designer Gareth Fry explains that he didn’t believe that wireless provided the quality he was after with this production.

Centre stage is a dummy head – made by Sennheiser. It sits on a microphone stand and clearly has some very sensitive microphones places within it, because the effect is superb. More effects are delivered using, for example small speakers playing a mosquito sound and then waved around the head. And when at one point McBurney blows softly into one ear, you “feel” it through your headphones.

Additionally McBurney uses a pair of skin coloured theatrical microphones, and a couple of other microphones used for closer work. One of them has an effect applied to lower his tone and deliver the voice of McIntyre. The technicians and producers who are mixing all of these live microphones along with pre-recorded material that has to be carefully timed to match with McBurney’s live narration are superb. They are rightly recognised at the end of the show.

Entertainingly, the backdrop of the set has the look of an anechoic chamber – a room specially designed to be soundless. It’s used to good effect with light projections, if not to completely dull the sound since theatres are designed to do the opposite, and in any case, the production can solely be experienced through headphones.

I can’t say enough good things about this production. Regardless of your interest in the technical aspects of it, it’s simply a wonderfully powerful piece about a remarkable people, and their beliefs. Sound is used fulsomely to deliver some of their rituals, and as an audience you are simply captivated.

Superb!

The entire run at the Barbican is now sold out but The Encounter is going to be live streamed on Tuesday 1 March on the Complicite YouTube channel at 7.30pm GMT. Don’t forget that it’s essential to listen via headphones! I’d also recommend settling down in a nice quiet room with your other devices turned off and no interruptions. I’ve no idea if it’ll stay there on-demand afterwards, so I’d recommend being there for the performance if you’re going to watch and listen.

Complicite also has an excellent resource section on its website.