The Encounter review – Simon McBurney's head trip up the Amazon

Barbican, London
Inspired by US photographer Loren McIntyre’s experiences with Brazilian rainforest tribes, this transporting Complicite show is a triumph of sound design

Simon McBurney is an extraordinary mix of actor, auteur and anthropologist. If the work of Complicite, which he co-founded, has been characterised by a fascination with other cultures, this show offers the most extreme example yet. Inspired by Petru Popescu’s Amazon Beaming, which recounts the experiences of an American photographer, Loren McIntyre, in the Brazilian rainforest, it raises any number of philosophical questions.

Judged purely as a sonic experiment, the show is an astonishing technical feat. Amiably chatting to the audience and asking us to put ourselves in the mind of McIntyre, McBurney asks us to don headphones that relay information from a binaural microphone. This results in a complex aural mix of live and recorded sound. At one point, we hear the whirr of the Cessna aircraft that deposits McIntyre in the jungle. At another, McBurney simulates the sound of walking through the forest by trampling on a mass of recording tape. But the heart of the story concerns McIntyre’s encounter with the nomadic Mayoruna tribe, and his dependence on his close relationship with the head shaman, known as Barnacle, with whom he communicates in a way that transcends language.

Shut your eyes at any point and you feel, thanks to McBurney’s expressive range and the ingenuity of the sound design by Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin, that you are in the Amazonian jungle. The show also raises intriguing questions about the multi-dimensional nature of time: not just through the aural blend of past and present, but through the Mayoruna people’s search for their own beginnings. But when McIntyre refuses the chance to escape from what he calls “my beautiful prison” and talks of the way we live inside the “limits” of our civilisation, I begin to get restless. It is one thing to deplore the destruction of the rainforests and the rapacity of the big oil corporations, but there is a touch of Rousseauesque wilfulness about the assumption that the Mayoruna tribe have access to a higher wisdom. They may well do, but I’d like rather more evidence.

For me the show, first seen in Edinburgh, is at its best when it demonstrates the capacity of McIntyre and Barnacle to communicate. The connection is sometimes instinctive, as when each runs in a circle to either put a hex on the tribe or to remove it. At other times, the contact is telepathic as when McIntyre hears Barnacle’s voice in his head telling him “some of us are friends”. No less extraordinary is McBurney’s own ability to transport us into another world in a two-hour encounter that makes strong demands on an audience, but ultimately rewards them.

• At Barbican, London, until 6 March. Box office: 0845 120 7511.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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