Simon McBurney’s Encounter at the End of the World

As the co–founder and artistic director of Britain’s groundbreaking theatre company, Complicite, Simon McBurney pushes the technological boundaries with work such as Mnemonic and his most acclaimed work to date, the Adelaide Festival–bound The Encounter.

McBurney, who is best known to Adelaide audiences via his appearances in films such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Last King of Scotland and recurring roles on television such as The Borgias and Rev, won’t be performing the technological one-person tour de force in Adelaide due to his young family and other commitments. Fellow Complicite and Royal Shakespeare Company actor Richard Katz will perform here instead.

Written and directed by McBurney, The Encounter is based on Petru Popesco’s Amazon Beaming, an account of National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre’s encounter with the Mayoruna tribe after McIntyre got lost deep in the Amazon. This meeting, as McBurney wrote for The Guardian, “was to confront him [McIntyre] with notions that overturned everything he thought he knew about the world”.

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McBurney didn’t think it was initially possible to turn this encounter into a piece of theatre but the actor and director thought the book was “astonishingly gripping” as he found it “raised a lot of interesting and disturbing issues”.

After his 1999 work Mnemonic, a personal piece about memory and identity, McBurney became fascinated with the function of the mind.

“Of all the things that still trouble us, one of the last great mysteries is the one we carry inside our heads,” McBurney says from New York, where he is about to perform The Encounter on Broadway. “How we remember, how we imagine, who we think we are, and, indeed, what does it mean to be conscious? That followed on from Mnemonic. I kept on meeting with neuroscientists following my interest in memory down the rabbit hole of consciousness, which is a very diffcult issue to talk about, because you tend to end up in a circle. There’s a very famous book on consciousness, by [Douglas] Hofstadter, I Am
a Strange Loop. You tend to go back to the beginning having thought you understood something about it.”

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McBurney was also intrigued by the concept of time and our relationship with the world and each other.

“Very simply, I am fascinated with how you try to evoke and embody these mysteries on stage, so that they become palpable to a member of the audience.”

For The Encounter, this means using groundbreaking equipment, as the play uses binaural technology (3D audio) to transport the audience deep in the jungle through a wall of sound. The audience wears special Sennheiser headphones to capture the 3D audio – including audio loops, dialogue and effects – created via the binaural microphone on stage.

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“So you have two stories, the story of Loren McIntyre in 1969, the National Geographic photographer who gets lost and gradually loses all sense of bearings – who and where he is in the world – and as a result of the encounter comes to think of things in a different way. And then you have me, the person who’s telling the story, and who gradually loses his bearings in the story and becomes Loren McIntyre.”

McBurney travelled to South America to visit the Mayoruna people before he decided to make the piece.

“They are very successful and are politically active within the Indigenous population all over South America,” he says. “They are in touch with their tribal brothers and sisters all over the continent and active in that respect. So, when they said to me after the traditional speech of welcome, ‘Why are you here?’ Then I had to answer.

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“The speech of welcome takes about an hour and it winds down to this point, so I started to improvise and tell the whole story of this man and what happened to him through translation. And they listened, again for about an hour, with people running in and out and children and chickens and goodness knows what else. Then the head man said, ‘We’re very moved by your story. And moved that you want to tell it. But when you go to – what he called your people – and you tell them this story. We want you to tell them that we, the Mayoruna, exist.’

What did he mean by, “We want you to tell that we, the Mayoruna, exist?”

“That they want people to understand that they are absolutely there and [the fact] that they have survived is extremely important. They are constantly agitating for environmental rights, as now, Indigenous voices are being raised more and more all over the planet on behalf of, what can I say, on behalf of the earth. These are voices that, in my opinion, are to be listened to.”

The Encounter
Adelaide Festival of Arts
Dunstan Playhouse
Tuesday, March 7 to Saturday, March 11
adelaidefestival.com.au

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