I was excited to see Simon McBurney’s The Encounter at the Odeon Theatre last night, and would definitely recommend it to all English speakers. It’s a rare occurrence to see theatre in English in Paris, and when it’s McBurney, it’s worth lining up for tickets.
The Encounter is a one-man show that tells the story of the American National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre who travels to a remote part of the Brazilian Amazon to document the existence of the Mayoruna people. As we know from the plethora of jungle stories in which explorers since the Conquistadors have ventured to this region of the world, things usually don’t end well for Westerners. However, McIntyre’s story as re-told by McBurney has an interesting trajectory because he lived to tell of the transformation he experienced as a result of his adventure.
McIntyre’s (somewhat familiar) story of being led into the forest by the locals soon after arriving, unable to communicate through shared language, met with mistrust and hostility by the people he has come to photograph, threatened with murder by one of the locals, rescued from near death by others, taking of hallucinogenic drugs, disorientation and all the usual plot twists is just the beginning of McBurney’s re-presentation. It’s a one man show with very little else on McBurney’s stage other than a lot of water bottles, various microphones, plastic speakers, a table and chair. But the extension of the performance is achieved through sophisticated technological manipulations of sound. Sound gives the stage a multi-dimensionality; it enables us to visualize the story, is manipulated to create multiple characters, and surrounds us with an immersive environment. Each person in the audience dons head phones on arrival in the theatre, and is quickly taken into the Amazon jungle, caught in the water, creeping through the forest, surrounded by mosquitoes, admiring the color of the local people, their tattoos, their piercings, and eventually suffering the burden of the humidity. Together with the rich texture of the language, McBurney uses the sound to create this world in our minds. At moments, the experience is even disorienting. When McBurney comes across four freshly butchered bodies of white people, I found myself squirming at the blood and the insects it attracts. There were also times when I looked around at a voice I momentarily misunderstood to be coming from behind me, only to realize it was the manipulation of the microphone.
The extension of the set through sound also facilitates the creation of different voices, McBurney’s ability to move between accents, continents, and an oscillation between the present in McBurney’s London home, his discussion in a café with the man who wrote McIntyre’s story, and the photographer’s journey through the Amazon. Through these sonic and aural extensions, as well as the constant revelation of these strategies, the piece also enters into a discourse on the illusion of the distinction between reality and fiction, representation and reality. For example, The Encounter opens with McBurney already in character casually telling the audience how the performance is put together, revealing its mechanisms so to speak. It takes a few minutes to realize this is what we are seeing, and audience members in the audience who don’t know McBurney, may even ask themselves if the guy up the front is a stage hand. Thus, where the piece actually begins is difficult to discern.
As well as being about the fusion of representation and reality, The Encounter is also a play about time and the ability of the human warrior to transcend time, to live in a time that is not governed by our own ideas of mechanical precision as it is dictated by the watch. It’s an interpretation of the story that becomes about the movement beyond language, beyond the linearity of past and present, beyond the divisiveness of nature and technology. That is, it becomes about the mechanisms it uses to convey the story itself.
I came away haunted by the phrase, “Some of us are friends” which was telepathically communicated to McIntyre by Barnacle, the chief of the Mayoruna. The line speaks to the relationship between the westerner and the indigenous across history. Some of us are friends awaits completion with, while some of us are exploited by capitalism’s greed for the oil that is the lifeblood of the Mayoruna land. Of course, the exploitation of the natural resources by the west in the interests of money then makes the piece very topical and it becomes highly political. In turn, while McIntyre communicates telepathically with the people with whom he does not share a language, he communicates with us through a sophisticated mélange of visual and sonic effects. Then there is a character named after his habit of ending every sentence with “OVER” because he learnt Portuguese as a radio operator, when the Americans came, killed his wife and child. His introduction is of course a searing critique on the language given to the colonized in exchange for their lives.
Ultimately, this is the discourse that resonates well after we leave the theatre: how the indigenous people are touched irrevocably by the westerners who go there, touched in a way that comes as a kind of death. While the Mayoruna give life, enabling an existential transformation to the westerner who invades their land, culture and lives, we, the colonizer take. The draining of their soil of its life blood by mining petroleum being, of course, the end of the invasion.