‘We see only what we want to see’: Simon McBurney on Complicite’s The Encounter

Production shot 3 (c) Robbie JackWhen actor and theatre-maker Simon McBurney first read Amazon Beaming – Petru Popescu’s book about a National Geographic photographer, Loren McIntyre, who went into the rainforest to take photos of the rarely seen Mayoruna tribe, only to lose his way back – he knew he would one day attempt to stage it. But how?

Twenty years later he found a way. The Encounter, a solo show performed by McBurney, opened at the Barbican this month as part of Complicite’s UK and international tour. It incorporates innovative technology to build a shifting world of sound as it traces McIntyre’s extraordinary journey, and along the way explores the outer limits of human consciousness. Here, McBurney describes some key moments in the development of the show, from experiencing total sensory deprivation in a research laboratory in Watford, to his own encounter with the Mayoruna tribe in the Brazilian Amazon…

When making a piece of theatre I am, frequently, if not most of the time, in the dark. I truly do not know where we will end up.

—    We’re going to shut the door now and we’ll open it again in twenty minutes. Is that okay?
—    Yep, I guess.
—    Have you ever sat in total silence? In the dark?
—    I’ll be fine.

As a result of spending sixty-three days in silence on a Vipassana retreat, Yuval Noah Harari, the acclaimed author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, proclaimed it the ideal tool with which to scientifically observe his own mind. He came to realise he had no idea who he really was and that the fictional story in his head, and the connection between that and reality, was extremely tenuous.

—    Okay well… if you freak out then push this button and we’ll open the door.

Anechoic Chamber (c) Simon McBurney

Designer Michael Levine in BRE anechoic chamber. Photo by Simon McBurney

The vast door to the anechoic chamber, which is, as the name suggests, a room without echoes, at the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in Watford, closes definitively behind me.

The concrete walls are so thick no sound from the outside world enters your ear canals and the vast foam wedges that cover the walls absorb sound to such an extent that a clap becomes a tap.

I am in total darkness. And total silence. I don’t mean the silence of three in the morning at home, or even the silence of the remotest place on Earth, I mean total silence.

My breathing sounds like a set of bellows; my heartbeat like an arrhythmic drum machine.

—    Why am I here?

It is 40°C, my clothes are already sodden, although we have only been here an hour. Or have we? I’ve lost track of time and I have no battery on my phone. In fact I don’t know why I have a phone at all given there is no signal here.

We are sitting in the house of Lourival Mayoruna, the headman or Cacique of Marajaí, a village of Mayoruna people deep in the Brazilian Amazon, an hour’s flight west of Manaus and four hours by boat up the River Solimões.

Photo by Chloe Courtney

Lourival, according to local protocol, talks to us as part of our welcome into the village – and has been doing so for the best part of an hour. The hut is crammed with people and sitting between us all like some twenty-first-century totem is a binaural head, the microphone that records in, so called, ‘3D’.

Paul Heritage, head of People’s Palace Projects, who has lived for more than twenty years in Brazil, translates as Lourival winds down…

—    So you have come all this way and I have one question…

Lourival leans forward looking me in the eye.

—    Why are you here?

I nervously lick the wet salt off my upper lip, and sweat stings my eyes as everyone’s eyes turn towards me.

—    I think you need to reply, says Paul.

Binaural head in the Amazon Rainforest. Photo by Chloe Courtney

The sounds of the forest and the village become extremely loud all of a sudden. I clear my throat.

The slight rising panic makes me realise the noise I am now hearing is the sound of fluids circulating in my head. And there is a high-pitched hiss caused by spontaneous firings of the auditory nerve. How long have I been sitting here in darkness? I squeeze my phone. Five minutes. I thought it was at least half an hour.

—    Where are you going?
—    To work on my show…
—    What are you doing?
—    Um… sitting in a dark silent room in Watford.
—    Why?
—    To see what it’s like.

I look at my son. He is four. I’m not sure he buys this answer.

—    When is Christmas?
—    A long time. Several months. When it is winter, when it will be cold again.
—    It was cold today.
—    Yes, okay, but not very cold.
—    Yes it was. I was cold.
—    You’re right, it was cold.
—    How long is several months?

I mutter something about moons and loads of sleeps.

Maybe this high-pitched hiss generated by my auditory nerves is something more sinister. I should get my ears checked for tinnitus when I get out of here. How much longer?

—    Forty-five minutes.
—    What?
—    You’ve been speaking for forty-five minutes.
—    Good God.

I got it all, whispers Gareth my sound designer, who looks even more sodden than I do in the Amazonian heat, unplugging the totem.

Amazon 3 (c) Chloe Courtney

Lourival and Joaquina, Complicite’s hosts in Marajaí, listening to the binaural head. Photo by Chloe Courtney

I look round the room. Silence. I am not sure how it has gone down. In English, the word ‘rehearsal’ derives from ‘hearse’ which means to rake over. To prepare the ground. And one way for me to prepare has always been to perform or improvise a show I am making to those who have never heard it. Because the story is not the show. It is not even the performance that is the show. The show is made in the minds of the audience. I want to know what they see. What they hear. I look at Lourival. He smiles.

INSIDE COVER IMAGE (c) Chloe Courtney

A girl from the Mayoruna community listening to the binaural head. Photo by Chloe Courtney

—    We are moved by your story, he says. Your story about this man who was lost, but who survived. Your story is about many people, but it is also about us, the Mayoruna. And it tells us that others in this world know of the Mayoruna people. You tell the world that we have survived. Many have perished. We have survived. But whether we will all survive… that is another matter.

He laughs.

—    So is it funny?
—    What?
—    Your performance.

My son examines me. I glance at him sideways. Draw in my breath.

Production shot 7 (c) Robbie Jack

Simon McBurney. Photo by Robbie Jack

The door suddenly creaks open and I am out in the Watford sunlight again, blinking. What greets me I don’t expect. It shocks me. It is a roar. So loud I want to block my ears. Traffic, voices, machinery, planes… industrial, all-encompassing, unstoppable. The shock is that most of the time, I do not hear it because our auditory system blocks out our conscious mind. Our ears, without us asking, form a filter and help to create a ‘normal’ reality, but one in which we hear ‘selectively’. As with our ears, so it is with all our senses. Our eyes, our sense of smell, every way in which we perceive the world creates a gap between what is actually happening and the story we make of it. We only see what we want to see…

The technician looks at me enquiringly.

—    How was it?
—    Disorientating.
—    And how did that feel?
—    Familiar.

Schaubuehne am Lehniner Platz. F.I.N.D. 2015, Amazon Beaming: Work in Progress, Complicite, inspiriert von dem Roman »Amazon Beaming« von Petru Popescu, Performance und Regie: Simon McBurney.

The Encounter. Photo by Gianmarco Bresadola


Formatted

The above article appears in the playtext of The Encounter published by Nick Hern Books, along with 32 pages of essays and colour photographs.

The playtext is available now. To buy your copy for just £7 – that’s 30% off the rrp of £9.99 – use the code ENCOUNTER when ordering through the NHB website here. This offer is valid until 31 March 2016.

The Encounter is at the Barbican, London, until 6 March, then touring.

Author photo at the top of this page by Robbie Jack.


THE ENCOUNTER: LIVE STREAM

The Encounter was live streamed from the Barbican on Tuesday 1 March. This video is no longer available.

‘Dare to fashion yourself’: Diane Samuels on her new play Poppy + George

Samuels, Diane3Diane Samuels, author of the powerful modern classic Kindertransport, set out to write a new play about female pirates… and ended up with a beguiling romance about cross-dressing and music hall. Poppy + George, which opened at Watford Palace Theatre this month, is all about identity, she explains – do we let ourselves be shaped by the assumptions of others, or do we choose to fashion ourselves?

Poppy + George, my new play, opened earlier this month at Watford Palace Theatre in a beautiful production with costumes and design by Ruari Murchison and original music by Gwyneth Herbert. It was a wonderful night, with a sense of well-earned satisfaction at the realisation of much hard work and leaps of the imagination, and not a little courage, all the more satisfying because its journey to this moment has turned out to be as unexpected and regenerative as the story of reinvention it tells.

It started in the early 1990s when I was writer-in-residence at Theatre Centre, researching the lives, loves, adventures and misdeeds of women pirates of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What compelled me most was the significant part their choice of dress played in creating their identity and expressing their ‘free’ lifestyles. This led me to look more closely at ways in which people, women in particular, across the centuries have dressed or been dressed to delineate their roles.

1-poppy-plus-george-richard-lakos

Poppy + George at Watford Palace Theatre. Photo by Richard Lakos

I found myself, by twists and turns, ending up in 1919, the year after the conclusion of the First World War. This was a time of great change, shifting of national boundaries, loosening of class structures and stirring of gender distinctions – corsets were becoming shorter and less rigid before they started to disappear completely in the 1920s; hems were shortening; and trousers, although still almost exclusively male attire, had been donned here and there, women wearing them while covering men’s jobs during the war years. In the play, Smith – tailor and costumier, born a Jew in Russia and then trained in his craft in the Imperial court in China, in whose workshop in London’s East End the action takes place – asks the young heroine, Poppy, ‘Are you the dummy or the tailor?’ She is affronted and replies, ‘How am I a dummy?’ To which he responds, ‘Either you are fashioned by what you’re told or think you’re told you can be… or you dare to fashion yourself.’

4-poppy-plus-george-richard-lakos

Photo by Richard Lakos

After running research sessions around the country looking at how we are fashioned and might fashion ourselves – including one in which a 16-year-old boy asked nervously if he might try on a wedding dress and did so with glee and amazement after we closed the doors and drew the curtains – I wrote a one-act play entitled Turncoat. An extensive tour took Smith’s magical workshop, where clothes and identities are created, into a wide range of venues including school halls, community centres and theatres throughout England and Wales.

In 2015, Brigid Larmour, Artistic Director at Watford Palace Theatre, asked if she might read a selection of my plays with a view to producing one. Turncoat leapt out at her as particularly relevant today, even more so than when it had first been written. I was invited to look afresh and write a new full-length play, developed from the earlier version.

8-poppy-plus-george-richard-lakos

Photo by Richard Lakos

The Palace had started life at the beginning of the twentieth century as a music hall, so I was excited to develop further the theatricality of the piece, adding to the songs, pastiches of music hall ditties, that are sung by the character Tommy Johns, a performer and female impersonator in that hugely popular tradition of ‘dames’ and drag. Underlying his humour is a sense of devastation, for Tommy has returned from a round of duty at the Front during the war, and he is struggling to revive his act and his life in this time of ‘so-called peace’. We meet him at the beginning of the play searching for a name for his latest creation, a maid with “‘er fluffy duster in ‘er ‘and”, encouraged by Smith, who is constructing his costume, and dashing chauffeur George Sampson, who has his uniforms made at the workshop.

7-poppy-plus-george-richard-lakos

Photo by Richard Lakos

The names people go by are central to the piece, and so I wasn’t surprised when I was asked to find a new title for the play. ‘Poppy + George’ popped into my head immediately. This meant also changing the name of the heroine from Melody to Poppy, a young woman from the north of England who arrives in London with an open, curious mind and a desire to make her way independently in the world. She becomes a seamstress and assistant to Smith and falls in love with George, which leads to her whole world being turned upside down. And so the symbolism of the poppy, with its associations with transformation and dreams (it was not selected as a symbol of memorial for the fallen in the war until 1921, two years after the play is set), has unfolded powerfully throughout the re-writing process, particularly the way the seeds lie dormant in the soil, perhaps even for centuries, and only spring into life and bloom when the earth is churned up and disrupted.

In the few days since the play has opened, it has been heart-warming to receive so many messages of appreciation. One reviewer described it as ‘winningly generous and big-hearted’, with many seeing the modern relevance of this threshold moment nearly a century ago. As Brigid Larmour wrote, ‘Diane has somehow tapped into the zeitgeist debates about gender and identity, in a way that is wonderfully warm and accessible to a wider audience. The music hall element works really well, and is incredibly playful, and the play seems to be leaving people very moved as well as entertained.’


Tamara von WerthernFrom our Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

We’re very excited to have Poppy + George on our list, and it’s sure to be hugely popular with amateur theatre groups. It offers two wonderful, fully-rounded central roles for women, it’s funny, it’s moving and it’s full of charm and atmosphere. Anyone who has enjoyed staging Diane’s brilliant Kindertransport  – or Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings, or Amanda Whittington’s Be My Baby – should certainly give Poppy + George a twirl.

To register your interest, drop me a line at tamara@nickhernbooks.co.uk, or call me on 020 8749 4953.


FormattedPoppy + George is at Watford Palace Theatre until Saturday 27 February.

The playtext is out now, published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £7.99 (20% discount) plus p&p, visit the NHB website here.

Out of the vault: highlights from VAULT Festival 2016

V16_V_Forest_crop

VAULT Festival is fast becoming one of the most exciting events on London’s cultural calendar. Taking place each year in the vaults beneath Waterloo, this year’s festival (running until 6 March) is host to over 100 events, from hard-hitting drama to comedy, dance, cabaret, installation, and of course late-night parties. This year Nick Hern Books publishes an anthology containing five of the best plays appearing at the festival, Plays from VAULT (don’t miss the special offer at the bottom of this page). We asked each of the writers to sum up what their plays are about and what VAULT means to them – plus, at the bottom, a few handy tips on what to see at the festival…

Kellett, RosieRosie Kellett on her one-woman play Primadonna, 17-21 Feb, which she also performs:

Primadonna is about being a PA. It’s about being young and keen and impressionable and the lengths we go to to please the people we respect. It’s somewhat based on experiences Jamie [Jackson, the play’s director] and I have had of being assistants ourselves, but in a way it’s more about questioning the cult of overwork and the void between service and servitude that we’ve found ourselves in. I was in Edinburgh with a show in 2015 and saw a lot of solo shows whilst I was there – some were awful, but a few were brilliant and I became fascinated by the challenge of writing one myself. This struck me as the perfect story to tell in monologue form, and it has proven to be equally challenging and rewarding to make.

VAULT Festival is such a special place. I think it might be one of my favourite places to be in London. Big words, but seriously, if you’re not down there in deepest darkest winter, you’re in the wrong place. I mean, not only is it one of the very few places in London that you can put on a show with relative financial ease, it’s also made up of the kindest and most supportive production team you’re ever going to meet. Tim, Mat and Andy seem to only hire lovely, professional people. It’s like a gang that you want to be a part of and for a few weeks you are. It’s the best. It’s one of London’s treasures.

Primadonna

Rosie Kellett in a publicity shot for her play Primadonna


Forsyth, OliOli Forsyth on his play Cornermen, 2-6 March, set in the world of boxing:

Cornermen came out the time I’ve spent in boxing clubs over the years. They’re really fascinating places to be. You get trainers, promoters and boxers of all levels working there, and they’re all looking for the right fight for the right money. I realised the most fascinating relationship of all was between boxer and manager: it seemed full of conflicts of interest. Managers are expected to know their fighters intimately, to care for their well-being and guide their career in a way that generates the most income and the most longevity. But in that lies a conflict. What happens if you manage a boxer who isn’t good enough to compete for titles or book large purse fights? What happens to the vast majority of boxers? The answer is that they become journeymen, boxers who make a living out of fighting any opponent, often at short notice and largely with the expectation that they’ll loose. It’s a hard career, both physically taxing and often short lived. The complexities of that business and the relationships within it are what inspired Cornermen.

We’re hugely excited to be taking the show to the 2016 VAULT Festival. The work last year was exceptional and it looks set to be even better this time around. We’re very fortunate to be on in the closing week, bringing the curtain down on the festival, so to speak, but it does mean the pressure’s on to live up to what came before! To have also been published by Nick Hern Books is something really special – it’s a strange feeling when you see people walking around holding a script you wrote in your local greasy spoon.

CORNERMEN 2.jpg

Cornermen by Oli Forsyth


Keith-Roach, Florence_Cropped_Credit Lily Bertrand-Webb

Author photo by Lily Bertrand-Webb

Florence Keith-Roach on her dark comedy about female friendship, Eggs, 24 Feb-6 March:

I wrote Eggs to try to examine the volatility and unique calibre of the variety of female friendships I saw around me and felt was underexplored in art. I was also interested in making theatre that nodded to its own artifice, was non-naturalistic and highlighted the absurd in the mundane.

Eggs is a dark comedy about female friendship, fertility and freaking out. It’s an intimate two-hander looking at the struggle of growing up as a part of Generation Y.

It’s structured as a series of dialogues between two women in their late-twenties, taking place intermittently over the course of a year. They have been friends since university, but in the years since they have started to make very different life choices, and as a result live utterly divergent, almost incommensurable lives. They also lost a friend a while ago, and in the time that has passed since this traumatic event, they realise that without the link of this ‘third leg of their tripod’, they actually have very little in common.

Eggs presents two very complex, intelligent, witty, at times irrational, women, facing life’s obstacles and making bold, but tortured and sometimes quite reckless decisions about how they choose to live their lives. The piece focusses on their friendship, their journey. Both women are at an age where society forces them to confront the ‘ticking time bomb’ that apparently is their fertility, and we witness how these two different women internalise this systemic anxiety. It deals with broader questions about the link between the political and the personal, the visceral alienation that our laissez-faire, capitalist society engenders in people’s subjectivities. And it’s about human beings coping with a mounting sense of alienation in an increasingly fragmented world.

VAULT Festival provides an amazing platform for emerging artists like me and I am incredibly grateful for the huge support they’ve given me. They came to see Eggs in Edinburgh and have offered us their biggest stage for one of their longest runs, which is a huge step for our team. Fringe theatre is becoming increasingly unviable in our profit-driven capital city. This is a real problem as London still prides itself on being a cultural capital of the world and yet most of the artists living here cannot afford to make work. The Vaults however offer an uniquely affordable platform for new work to be exposed to large audiences, younger theatregoers who normally can’t afford the tickets, and industry members. The opportunities they have given me have been essential to the development of my career. It’s a very special place.

EGGS press shot 4_Lily Ashley.JPG

Eggs by Florence Keith-Roach (photo by Lily Ashley)


Laughton, Stephen 1Stephen Laughton on writing Run, 10-14 Feb, his play about a young man who risks everything for love:

So in a short sentence, Run is basically about a 17-year-old who falls in love – and that kind of takes over his entire universe. It’s about love, life, loss, growing up into the man you’re supposed to be and everything in between. And space. There’s a lot of that.

Rather than coming from something  external that inspired me, which is the way I usually work – this time I sat down and thought, I’ve never written a monologue before, I’d like to write about being in love at 17, I’d like to write something about being gay and Jewish, and I’d like to write about a boy who’s a bit obsessed with space. I was then approached about writing a short for Theatre Renegade’s Courting Drama showcase, so I sat down and wrote a twenty-minute version and we all (cast and crew) loved the process so much we decided to have a go at making a full length version. Fastforward nine months or so, and here we are!

It also occurred to me last week that, on a really personal level, it’s also about the moment when my partner and I took a break for a little bit last January. Although it was ultimately a good move, looking back it’s clear that I really had a hard time dealing with that – including a disastrous rebound. And that space apart really affected me.  (But it’s all okay, now, because we got back together and we’re really happy!)

I love VAULT Festival. I’ve been going for a few years now and it’s one of my favourite things to do in London. So being a part of it is just, well… wow…. I’m absolutely super chuffed.

It’s special having this particular play in the festival too… with this team… it’s all kind of just fallen into place wonderfully! Oh and I got a play published because of it… that just rocks!

Lauren-Brown-Run-Main-Image-Digital

Run by Stephen Laughton


SONY DSC

Camilla Whitehill on her monologue about modern love and old-fashioned entitlement, Mr Incredible, 10-14 Feb:

Mr Incredible is about the dark side of modern romantic relationships; it’s about toxic privilege and entitlement; it uses the word ‘love’ a lot but is not a love story. I think a lot of people who have co-habited with a significant other will recognise a lot of the behaviour and language.

VAULT Festival is utterly unique – it is a genuinely egalitarian testing ground for new work and experimental styles. There’s nothing else like it. And once you go, you’ll be addicted. The atmosphere is electric.

Mr-Incredible-Main-Image-Digital.jpg

Mr Incredible by Camilla Whitehill


Our writers recommend at VAULT Festival 2016…

Rosie Kellett: It goes without saying that you should see all the other plays in the Nick Hern Books anthology: Mr Incredible, Run, Eggs and Cornermen. Rebecca Durbin is doing really exciting things with Play, I’m totally going to try and make it down to a show. And Vinay Patel has a reading of his play Known Unknowns which I’m really excited for – I loved True Brits which was at the Festival last year.

Florence Keith-Roach: The VAULT Festival seems to be the place for this year’s exciting new writing. It’s not all polished, but that’s what’s so thrilling about it. I am heading straight to the performance poetry/one-woman play by Lily Ashley called You are Me and I am You. After the Heat We Battle for the Heart by Tallulah Brown, about a female bullfighter, will be great too. I am also excited to see Play, a series of devised plays bringing together some really great talent across acting, writing and directing. All of the other plays in the Nick Hern Books anthology are by writers who I have been hearing great things about, so I’m going to be seeing their shows and cannot wait.

Camilla Whitehill: I’m excited to see all the other plays in the anthology, Isley Lynn’s Skin A Cat, and Plunge Theatre’s scratch of their new show Success. I’m also running a fundraiser called A Night For Syria on 5 February, with loads of brilliant theatre and comedy, and all proceeds going to the UNHCR emergency fund.

Oli Forsyth: There’s so much on! I’m working with an Edinburgh Fringe model of running my finger down the programme and going to see whatever I stop on. That said, there are undoubtedly some highlights I’ll be in to see. I Got Dressed In Front of my Nephew Today is as mental as it sounds but is brilliantly funny, clever and makes a real point about the pressures woman are under to conform to a modern perception of beauty. I’m really excited to see Run, Primadonna and Mr Incredible. Chill Pill is usually an excellent night and it’ll be good to see some spoken word during the Festival. Police Cops is exceptional and very, very funny and I can’t wait to catch Eggs – our shows clashed during Edinburgh so I’ll take my chance now!

Stephen Laughton: Isley Lynn’s Skin A Cat, Rosie Kellet’s Primadonna, Camilla Whitehill’s Mr Incredible and Viscera Theatre’s In Tents and Purposes are looking like particular highlights for me. Also check out what Play are doing and basically everything that’s going on at The Locker, there are some great pieces playing there; Crowley and Co are doing a takeover for a couple of weeks and they have an awesome programme… and you’ll def find me at Sarah Kosar’s new play Armadillo and Vinay Patel’s Known Unknown.

FormattedPlays from VAULT contains five of the best plays from VAULT Festival 2016:

Eggs by Florence Keith-Roach
Mr Incredible by Camilla Whitehill
Primadonna by Rosie Kellett
Cornermen by Oli Forsyth
Run by Stephen Laughton

The anthology is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

SPECIAL OFFER: To buy your copy for just £7.79 (40% off the RRP £12.99), order via the Nick Hern Books website here and use voucher code VAULTBLOG at checkout. Offer valid until 31 March 2016.

VAULT Festival 2016 runs from 27 January – 6 March. Visit the festival website here.