The Encounter, Directed and Performed by Simon McBurney, Complicite, Brighton Festival, Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Sussex University, Thursday 12th May, 7.30pm.
The chain of events, culminating in this theatre production, has its origin in the late 1960s when an American, Loren McIntyre, went, by himself, into the Amazon jungle in search of a recently contacted tribe, the Mayoruna. He was intending to photograph the people and their surroundings for major, global magazines, such as National Geographic.
Photography in those days was a pretty difficult and expensive business, and you needed to be an expert to be able to get the photographs the magazines needed, with saturated colour and artistic composition, the kind of photos which emphasised the exotic and the strange, images which would look good on the coffee tables of the world.
So the story begins with an American going to photograph people in the Amazon jungle. It's a safe bet that the people in the Amazon wouldn't have been too pleased about this. They weren't stupid. Australian Aborigines think that photos steal a person's soul and they have a point. This kind of photography was basically an economic transaction where the photographer and the publisher got all the money and the people being photographed got all the publicity which they hadn't asked for or wanted.
Loren McIntyre, however, got a lot more than he bargained for, and it mostly didn't include photographs.
He was approached by a small group from the tribe and, not being able to believe his luck, followed them into the jungle, forgetting to mark the way and so wasn't able to find his way back. (At this point, we in the audience at the play are silently screaming, 'Are you insane?'.)
A tiny detour - in the late seventies, and I'm not proud of this, not so long after McIntyre's foray into the Amazon, I was invited on a canoe journey, in a hollowed-out log with an outboard motor, up a river in northern Papua New Guinea, with an artefacts trader, also American, who was interested in purchasing carvings and other items from the local people living by the river. We aren't talking lots of money, five Australian dollars typically, but this trader was pretty aggressive about finding things to buy. He would go, uninvited, into houses and pull out carvings, paddles, spears, bows and arrows etc and ask: 'How much?' This didn't go down well. I don't mind admitting that there were times when I felt pretty scared.
But the people were poor and life was tough. The further up the river we went, the more children with the distended stomachs of malnutrition were in evidence and, interestingly, the quieter it became. That detail has stayed with me, more than any other.
McIntyre, for his trouble, found himself in the centre of a kind of coup d’état, a trial of strength between two members of the tribe, who, in the absence of any common language or ability to communicate, he christened Red Cheeks and Barnacle. The situation is never made completely clear, but this was a struggle to the death.
Against the odds, McIntyre survives to tell the tale.
At this point his story is taken up by an exiled Romanian novelist (can it get any more complex?) Petru Popescu, who transformed the events into a novel, in English, Amazon Beaming, published in 1993, which found its way into the hands of Simon McBurney in the late 90s.
Simon McBurney has been working on this project, trying to come up with a way to present the story that made sense, for something more than 10 years. It's easy to see why it took so long.
There aren't any photos from my experience in New Guinea and it wouldn't matter if there were. They wouldn't add anything to what I remember. Given McIntyre's experiences, photos, images, were clearly not the place to begin.
We are so accustomed to stories being told through images that when the visual is aggressively and uncompromisingly removed, we feel discombobulated, out of place, almost out of our own bodies. That is exactly what this production wants us to feel. What we are hearing and what we are seeing simply don't match.
And this corresponds to McIntyre's experience with the people in the Amazon.
In film, the cinema, television, the image is the primary form and the sound-track, as important as it is, supports, reinforces the picture. In The Encounter, this hierarchy is completely reversed, sound is the primary medium, the visual undercuts, or subtly enhances, the sound.
This requires some pretty advanced technology, one aspect of which is a microphone which looks like a person's head on a stick, which gathers sound as we would, generating a three dimensional impression, as if we were there, inside the sound. This is enormously enhanced by every member of the audience listening through their own pair of headphones.
Simon McBurney, who performs the creation of this sound structure, has to be somewhere, and he chooses to be in a place with as little visual interest, or visual correlation to the Amazon rainforest, as possible, a sound recording studio. Or at least a kind of approximation of one, with a large back wall of the kind of pattern which breaks up sound waves.
The play then, is all about Simon McBurney's struggle to tell this story without the usual visual aids, but with complex three dimensional sound, and whatever he can find in the studio, old sound tape, bottles of water, a table.
What comes across most strongly is that we need to listen to these people. We need to stop taking photos of them, we need to stop exploiting them economically in ever more imaginative ways and start listening.
A story, which begins with exploitation, is finally an eloquent and theatrical expression, in real time right in front of our eyes and in our ears, of the immense difficulty, the energy and commitment that is needed to really hear what these people are trying to tell us.
The Encounter is an extraordinary and truly memorable achievement.