The Encounter by Complicite was THE hot ticket at the Edinburgh Festival in 2015. Broadway has gone crazy for it. It’s received rave reviews everywhere it’s travelled, so expectations were sky-high for its Australian tour. Sydney raved about it and so did Melbourne. Now it’s Perth’s turn to experience the theatrical phenomenon that is The Encounter.
Complicite won the 2016 Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Design and the 2017 Stage Award for Innovation for The Encounter. The production is that rarest of achievements: a fluent, seemingly effortless fusion of art and technology, without compromise.
It’s not often that sound design takes centre stage, yet when Complicite decided to rewrite Petru Popescu’s Amazon Beaming for the theatre, it was – in the words of sound designer Gareth Fry – “not the sort of story you can put on in the typical fashion”.
We went to find out what the fuss is all about. Before we went, we read a number of reviews, but none of them could have prepared us for the innovative, mind-bending and immersive sensory experience of the show, which is second to none.
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 The Encounter.
On one level, this is simply a classic adventure story of an intrepid Western explorer lost in the Amazon rain forest.
But the plot, as exotic as it might seem, is only the point of departure for a more far-reaching journey, one that throws widely open the doors of perception. Richard Katz takes a “walk across your brain”, a perambulation that disassembles everything he’s saying to you and how he’s saying it, how you’re processing it and even how you’ll be thinking about it tomorrow. Your passport is the set of earphones that you find attached to your seat.
The earphones don’t even look particularly sophisticated, but almost as soon as you put them on, your sense of time and space is altered. At one moment the performer and guide for this unique audio experience, Richard Katz, is standing a metre or two behind you, then he’s whispering into your ear, then he seems to be blowing warm air directly into your ear. The effect is so realistic that, just for a moment, it feels as though your ear might be heating up, but before too long a mosquito starts buzzing around your head.
The question of where voices come from, and how we hear them, turns out to be central to the plot of The Encounter. To recreate Loren McIntyre’s adventures, Richard Katz becomes McIntyre, a third-person narrator, assorted tribesmen, the occasional jungle animal or insect and — always — Richard Katz himself, the man behind the curtain, pulling the levers and juggling the plot.
Except in this case, Richard Katz is always in full view, standing amid the foam-walled simulated sound studio designed by Michael Levine. You watch him turning from one microphone to another, and crumpling a plastic bag or shaking one of those water bottles to simulate the noises of the brush or the river. So in theory, you can always accurately trace direct cause and effect within the show’s illusions.
It turns out you can’t. Richard Katz and the Complicite ace sound designers, Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin, have created an aural labyrinth of many layers. You’ll be watching Richard Katz lips moving in sync with what you’re hearing, only to discover that it’s a recorded voice you’ve been listening to. With your earphones on, there’s no distinguishing between the live and the pre-recorded, a blurring that allows Richard Katz to conduct very immediate-feeling conversations with his past selves.
And with his 5-year-old daughter, whose voice keeps interrupting him in what feels like real time. And with a host of people interviewed in preparation for this show, including Petru Popescu and a variety of neuroscientists, philosophers and environmentalists, who keep interrupting the central story with fragments of theories. What unfolds is a story that evolves and questions the way we see our world and notions of time. Among the questions posed: Is consciousness possible without memory? Is time only a structuring fiction devised by humans? Does time have one or two dimensions? Can language exist without words? Does the introduction of modern materialist cultures into indigenous communities inevitably destroy their essence? Better not to think too hard about this while you’re watching the show.
The Encounter is storytelling at its absolute best. Just as impressive is the writing of the play, which brings together all kinds of narrative threads (including one of our narrator researching this story and compiling the show), sources of sounds, and the interviews about the impact of this journey and the context within which we’re now hearing it.
At the end, Richard Katz returned as himself 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.
Gareth Fry received a 2017 Helpmann Award nomination for Best Sound Design for The Encounter.