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Simon McBurney: 'Any form of theatre is a sign of a healthy society'

The creator of The Encounter reflects on lockdown life and the vital role of the show

Simon McBurney in The Encounter. 'This extraordinary show is a sonic blast and a half'
© Robbie Jack

It's been almost five years since The Encounter first wowed audiences at the Edinburgh International Festival. Inspired by Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu, co-directed by Simon McBurney and Kirsty Housley and performed solo by McBurney, the piece is based on the story of Loren McIntyre, a photographer who finds himself lost in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest.

The twist is – all audiences members wear headphones throughout. Using binaural sounds and a plethora of effects, foley and voiceover, McBurney and the magical sound design of Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin create an intimate, highly wrought experience of the Amazon. Throughout the performance, McBurney is both on stage in front of a thousand people and whispering in your ear.

It isn't just a show that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, it's a show that makes you question what it means for hairs on your neck to stand on end.

That's why it gels relatively well with being presented online – by stipulating that all watchers have to wear headphones, The Encounter retains its intimacy. McBurney compares it to the cinema: "there is an intimacy in the cinema, like it's just you watching. There's a parallel intimacy with the headphone. The intimacy is maintained, even if you're watching it on an iPhone."

Interviewing McBurney is an extension of that same intimacy in The Encounter. He pauses on words, ruminating in the middle of sentences, breaking off for a drink. Sometimes he'll get excited about something you've said (gardening, in this instance) sometimes he'll reach slow prosody as he comes to the end of a thought. It's mesmeric.

Housebound with two children, McBurney is adjusting to the lockdown world. While not the biggest fan of online communication ("I find I'm starting to dread all these Zoom meetings, I want to get out of them, I physically want to get out of them"), being at home with family has been a bonus: "Sitting, listening, being with my children in another way. Not rushing off or rushing around", though remarks that, having had four friends pass away from the virus, he's come to think about mortality a lot more: "Our sense of time is questioned".

Simon McBurney
© Stavros Petropoulos

This idea of time is a refrain that comes up again and again in The Encounter. Mcintyre dwells on the idea of time as he watches indigenous peoples go through collective rituals, as is McBurney at the moment: "Weeks seem to go by like mornings, our sense of time is very different".

He adds – "The politicians use a phrase – going 'back' to normal – which seems to me an impossibility. You can't go back in time. The physics of time don't allow it (if indeed there are physics of time, if you read someone like Cardo Rovelli, he might make you think time doesn't exist at all). You can't unboil an egg. One of the metaphors in the piece is that people go forward to the beginning, and right now it isn't a question of when it ends, it's more a question of 'how do we go forwards to another beginning?'"

What this new beginning is, McBurney isn't sure. But he knows that the arts are an invaluable part of it: "Any form of theatre is a sign of a healthy society. By theatre I refer to all gatherings when people gather together, theatre is a repeated ritual – there are many other rituals, weddings, funerals, feasts, celebrations, demonstrations, sporting events."

The lockdown experience has recalibrated a lot of peoples' relationships with nature: "Here in Stroud, we're under one of the biggest flight paths from the USA. But if we see a plane now we remark upon it." McBurney thinks that, hopefully, the pandemic will alter people's perceptions of the environment: "Our crisis of climate has been highlighted by what's been going on. People will suddenly realise what it's like to sit in traffic again. They will be able to feel what it's like to be flying all over the world."

Unlike a lot of theatre being streamed on the internet right now, The Encounter's return comes with an even greater sense of urgency: "We've been in contact with friends in the Amazon including filmmaker Takuma Kuikuro who lives in a tribal village with 300 people. He says the regime in Brazil has been actively encouraging indigenous populations to go out and not to think about the pandemic."

As Tom Phillips warns in The Guardian – ‘We are on the eve of a genocide'.

The show, co-presented with The Space, will be available on Complicité's website and YouTube channel from 15 to 22 May.