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Drama Studio, Sydney Opera House
January 19, 2017
The Encounter might just be the under-the-radar headliner for three of Australia’s major arts festivals this year. With a modest solo performer on a relatively bare stage, it may not have the sheer dramatic wattage of Cheek By Jowl’s Measure for Measure, or the flash, bang and wallop of Barrie Kosky’s Saul, but the show, which arrives in Sydney from an acclaimed Broadway run before heading to Perth and Adelaide, has plenty to say, both about its own art form and the state of the world today.
In 1969, National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre disappeared up the Amazon. Searching for a ‘lost’ tribe of Mayoruna Indians (commonly nicknamed the ‘cat people’ because of the bristles they stick through perforations in their upper lip and nose), McIntyre spent two months with a group on the move before he was able to find his way back to ‘civilisation’. Petru Popescu's transcriptions of McIntyre’s accounts of his Mayoruna encounter and a subsequent search for the elusive birthplace of the Amazon river make up the book Amazon Beaming, the source material for Complicite’s latest stage work.
The British theatre company under the visionary leadership of Simon McBurney has been at the cutting edge of theatrical innovation for nearly 35 years now. At first making their mark with highly original use of movement, the group has gone on to chip away at other disciplinary coal faces with imaginative explorations of what can be achieved with lighting, video and, in the case of The Encounter, sound. Here, audience members are required to don headphones – and very comfortable ones at that – in order to immerse themselves in a world of aural imagination and more than the occasional sleight of hand. It never feels gimmicky, however. There’s method behind the madness, intimately linking our sensory experience to McIntyre’s multilayered narrative of anthropological investigation and the effects of ecological encroachment of the present on the past.
Richard Katz in The Encounter. Photos by Prudence Upton
Our guide in all this is the personable and infectiously enthusiastic Richard Katz, an actor whose chatty stage persona can exude a friendly British blokeishiness one minute before morphing before our eyes into a quizical or a tormented McIntyre. “I’m not really in your head,” Katz jokes, as his voice appears to travel around and through our frontal lobes. But of course he is, and this cunning duplicity blurring the boundaries between what is real and what is not is key to the savvy game playing that is part and parcel of the work. When he breathes into our ears, we really do feel the heat. There's much byplay with hallucination, ideas of true and false witness, and spatial jiggery-pokery. Yes, it’s a mind-fuck, but such a clever one that we willingly embrace it all.
Truth and fiction, fact and narrative, past, present and future are all up for grabs here. As Katz tries to devise his piece of theatre late at night in his London home, he's constantly interrupted by his little girl who can’t sleep. Is this happening now? Early on he sends her a selfie with his Sydney audience, but does he even have a kid or is he stringing us along? Maybe it's just theatre? McIntyre is at first mystified by his Amazonian encounter, giving his Mayoruna companions nicknames – Barnacle, Red Cheeks etc. – to overcome the language barrier. We see them – or more accurately hear them – through Katz’s narrative and the sophisticated audioscape of rain, water, insects and ambient music. The creative team includes design (Michael Levine), sound (Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin), lighting (Paul Anderson) and projections (Will Duke), but each department also credits supervisors and engineers in a long list of names, all of whom deserve credit for this unique and compelling technological melange. But the evening belongs to Katz, and his bravura performance is polished, delicate and tireless over two hours (which, incidentally, feels shorter).
Of course, it’s McIntyre’s narrative that is the heart of the matter here, and without engaging in spoilers it runs a rich gamut from the gently mystified, to the not unreasonably fearful, to the full-on horrific. It’s packed with anthropological observation and the occasional bit of New Age wisdom. Parallels are drawn between violent tribal ritual and the civil unrest of the late 1960s. With intense descriptions of the deadly insect life of the Amazon rainforest, and the photographer’s gradual rapprochement with a semi-hostile Indigenous tribe who never fully slough of the skin of mutual suspicion, it’s an emotional rollercoaster. As McIntyre struggles to understand the Mayoruna’s quest to return to ‘the beginning’, so we are drawn effortlessly along for the ride.
At other times it’s clearly meant to overwhelm the senses, and there are moments – the storm sequence for example – when it feels as if even the kitchen sink is being thrown at it (and us). This is where The Encounter is least effective. Perhaps a bit less would have engaged the heart a bit more – that and a few minutes of fat trimming here and there. Nevertheless, it’s rare to come out of a piece of theatre with such strong visual memories of people you have never actually seen.
At the end, Katz returned to read us a letter from a Mayoruna headman to Simon McBurney, who had visited the Amazon prior to directing the show (McBurney was the original performer too). The message was loud and clear – we exist, we deserve to exist, and we have a right to our own world and ways despite the documentary makers, the logging engineers and the effects of global warming. Powerful stuff.
The Encounter is classic festival fare – economically portable, yet packing ten times the punch of your usual one-man play thanks to its innovative use of technology and the dense overlay of reality, history and fiction. Recommended for anyone interested in where theatre might be headed in the next decade.
The Encounter is at Sydney Opera House as part of the Sydney Festival until Jan 28; Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, Feb 2 – 10; His Majesty’s Theatre as part of the Perth Festival, Feb 16 – 25; Adelaide Festival Centre, March 7 – 11; and Auckland Arts Festival, March 15-19