‘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.

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