The Encounter (Barbican Centre)

Complicite theatre company’s new play is an astonishing aural adventure into the rainforest

The Encounter
The Encounter

This latest show from Complicite really gets into your head. More specifically, it gets "just behind your frontal lobe", as we're told playfully by Simon McBurney in The Encounter. Using a mind-bending method of binaural microphone technology – essentially 3D sound – it feels as though McBurney, the lone performer onstage, is right next to you, whispering his remarkable tale right into your brain.

Onstage is a microphone in the shape of a head, and that's us. McBurney speaks into the left ear and we hear him in our left ear, the same into the right. The microphone is a replica of exactly how we hear. Armed with this and several other recording instruments, McBurney relays the story of what happened to photojournalist Loren McIntyre when he got lost in the Amazon with the fabled Mayoruna tribe (or Cat People).

Taken from the novel Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu, it is a strange, wild tale which sees McIntyre disappearing deeper into the rainforest, where he begins to communicate telepathically and discovers the source of the Amazon. It also plays with truth: McIntyre's camera – the ultimate truth-telling machine – was stolen by a cheeky marmoset. Can we take just this man's word for what happens to him?

The Encounter is a little bit like being inside the head of McBurney, too. Messy and meta, the narratives are layered: parts of McBurney's own life keep encroaching on McIntye's. As well as being in both the Amazon and the theatre at the Barbican, we are also in McBurney's flat where his daughter keeps interrupting his work because she can't sleep. It's a way of reminding us of where we are: this is theatre; McBurney is telling a story. But the power of this story is enough to knock you flat.

As well as the extraordinary use of sound – which brings the Amazonian rainforest vividly to life – we're played recordings of philosophers about the nature of time, of anthropologists about how the rainforest and its indigenous tribes are being decimated and of interviews with people who knew McIntyre. At one point McBurney even argues with his past voice about who is real and who is not. In The Encounter, time bends, jumps and rolls into one.

There are visual tricks too, which again manipulate the senses into feeling some of what McIntyre, who at one point hallucinates with the tribe, actually felt. We experience The Encounter through the soundscape created by McBurney and designers Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin, but we also see McBurney become McIntyre. He's lost and a bit mad, separated from 'civilisation' and experiencing a form of human life which, in our world of fast cars and neon signs, most of us have long since left behind.

Transporting, is one word for The Encounter; it takes you into the minds of other humans and into the darkest shadows of the jungle, but it is also, at its essence, simple storytelling. As McBurney points out at the beginning of the piece, winding yarns is a primal, vital instinct that sets us apart from other species. And this is a demonstration of that instinct at its very best.

The Encounter runs at the Barbican Theatre until 6 March and then tours.