THE ENCOUNTER Barbican and touring

McBURNEY ON, AND IN, THE BRAIN
If there is any theatre artist reliably able to draw you into a world of disorientation, time-slip, near-death and a sense of licking hallucinogenic frogs in a dislocated space-time contiuum and speaking the language of the jaguar, it is Simon McBurney of Complicité. He will mess with your head and shiver your heart.

In Edinburgh last summer, having missed its premiere myself I kept meeting colleagues emerging, blinking dazedly, from the premiere of this solo but high-tech production: muttering about binaural headphones, rainforests, theories of Time, and how on earth they were going to explain it in 400 words for the morning edition. Those free of such a duty were just radiantly pleased to have been there and to have experienced something rich and strange. Which ,of course, is an emotion familiar to most of us after any Complicité production.

So here it is at the Barbican, with a tour soon to ricochet between home and European cities , and a live-stream on the Guardian website on 1 March at 7.30. In brief, what McBurney is doing is relating the adventure of the late Loren McIntyre, an eminent National Geographic photographer who in 1969 was looking for the “unacculturated” Mayoruna tribe in the upper reaches of the Amazon. Following them, losing his trail, he lived among them without a common language for weeks or months, he no longer knew. They travelled, uprooting temporary villages, towards a ritual called “the beginning”. The westerner’s possessions – including camera – were taken or burned, leaving him “reduced to just a body”. He knew fear, exhaustion, near-starvation, panic, certainty of immediate death, and something beyond that: a strange telepathic communication with the headman and a philosophic broadening of his sense of time, space and reality.

He only related this journey later in his life; it became a book by the Romanian Petro Popescu, which Simon McBurney read twenty years ago and (after a journey of his own to experience the Amazon and the modern Mayoruna) resolved to make into theatrical storytelling.

But it is no mere ripping-yarn: trippy in another sense, it is presented by the teller (physically alone on stage but with a web of high technology) as an aural adventure. We must wear headphones; onstage are several microphones including a head-shaped “binaural”. In a light-hearted spirit he first roams round this, demonstrates how he can seem to move close to our heads, breathe on our neck, cross the “electrified paté” between our ears, make himself or others appear overhead or behind us, trick us into feeling rain and wind and fear and movement, and the geography of his own flat where he pre-recorded some sounds and voices.

Even during the most intense moments of jungle storytelling – some in McBurney’s normal voice, most though adopting the explorer’s deep American tones – there are interruptions: reminders that this is a tale we are being told by one man roaming around a big stage shaking, rattling, hitting things, losing himself in the story and being jerked back to the present. Perhaps a babel of expert voices calmly discuss the philosophy of time, oil exploration, or tribal fragility; or perhaps his five-year-old daughter enters the flat – where he suddenly is again – and wants a drink of water even as the explorer in the story is half-dead from thirst himself.

It’s mesmerizing. Sometimes you shut your eyes and think of it as an especially intense stereo broadcast; then open them and there is McBurney, sweating and moving and eating crisps (“Walkers – you’d think they’d lay on something better for press night”). But as it builds to the strange ritual frenzy and a rainstorm swells the imaginary river, the bland acoustic backcloth seems to shake and dissolve the universe, and we are drawn helplessly into sombre, sempiternal meditations on rebirth and reality and our tiny corner in nature. And we shiver, and as it ends realize that over two hours have passed.

box office barbican.org.uk to 6 March, then touring – UK sites Manchester / Brighton/ Oxford/
rating four 4 Meece Rating

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