THE ENCOUNTER | London, Barbican

Last night’s performance of Simon McBurney’s ‘The Encounter’ has left me at a distance from the rest of the world, even now. Having witnessed it (this is the right verb), I am entirely at peace with this new state of being, and, I suspect, this is exactly what was intended. At times, sitting in the packed Barbican and surrounded by hundreds of audience members, I almost forgot who I was.

As with all theatre at its most radical and transgressive, the format surprises before can we take it for granted. One man (the wholly extraordinary Simon McBurney, backed by a dynamic sound team), a lot of plastic bottles, a chair, a table, black plastic ribbons, and a head on a stick. In technical terms, this is a binaural speaker linked up to the headphones we all wore, that meant McBurney could, from the stage, whisper in all our ears. At first, as he threw out questions on the nature of time, demonstrated the looping pedal, stood on the stage and talked to us from behind, into our left ears and blew into the right (cue squeaks from the audience), I wondered if we might be in for an impressive display of the latest stage gimmickry, but held on. Not long afterwards, I watched McBurney crawl along a light beamed over the stage floor, while simultaneously seeing a lost National Geographic photographer, delirious from thirst, trace through the Amazon rainforest the tracks of the Mayoruna tribe he’d lost sight of. And the audience knew who they were: by this point, we’d met them.

One of the key moments in the story of Loren McIntyre is the telepathy which enables the headman of the tribe to communicate with him, despite their having no languages in common. “Some of us are friends”, he tells the stranded Loren, who replies through the same channel “I’m a friend, too”. But as voices sail around our headphones describing the death brought by foreign explorers to Amazon tribes with their unfamiliar bacteria, and the west’s wholesale ravaging of the Amazon for its oil, that statement is laced with unease, despite the genuine friendship of the two men as the tribe bring Loren safely through the rainforest to something called simply ‘the beginning’.

I’m still very far from being able to find any useful way of defining or even describing this groundbreaking event: calling it a play seems reductive. Only about half of what happened took place on stage, while the rest happened in my head as I watched one man play out the action on stage with a phone and speaker. There were many encounters here: fact and fiction, reality and dreams, time both as we know it and as it might be. Mystic wouldn’t be far off, but how can that apply to a 21st century audience who walk out of the theatre switching their phones back on? At Barbican station, though, standing amongst a crowd of the audience, I noticed that they were all, still, dreamily silent.

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