In 1969, National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre became lost in the depths of Brazil’s remote Javari Valley and found himself living amongst the Mayoruna people, a tribe with little to no contact with the outside world. He believed that he discovered the source of the Amazon River by speaking telepathically with the tribespeople.
Based on Petru Popescu’s novelised account of McIntyre’s experience (The Encounter: Amazon Beaming) this production from London’s avant-garde theatre company, Complicite, comes fresh from Broadway to the Sydney Opera House for Sydney Festival. It’s an audio-intensive theatrical experience that will transport you to the uncharted depths of the Amazonian rainforest and the furthest reaches of human consciousness.
A set of custom headphones is waiting for each audience member at every seat in the theatre The staging at first seems unassuming, more of a sound studio than an actual set, with a desk, bottles of water, microphones and various gadgets strewn around. A large (binaural) microphone the size and shape of a human head is the focal point.
Sole performer Richard Katz seems equally unassuming, strolling onto the stage in jeans, a t-shirt and cap, and starting what seems like a casual warm up chat. He segues candidly into chatting about technology and its effect on our perception of the world and the morphing of fiction and fact in our times – and then you realise the spectacle has already begun. These apparent afterthoughts weave into the intensely planned brilliance of this show, the stage eventually exploding into disarray.
Katz embodies the role of narrator and protagonist, switching from the deep tambour and American twang of McIntyre’s voice (with the assistance of some technical wizardry), and sporadically back into his British accent; it possesses an air of active observation that evokes Louis Theroux (or at a wider stretch, David Attenborough?)
The cutting-edge soundscape (designed by Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin) is utterly immersive, allowing you to feel the rush of the river, the hum of the rainforest’s insect life, and even summoning the prickling heat of Katz whispering in your right ear. By not immediately relying on a visual spectacle, this production lures you into an engrossing sensory experience.
In order to understand a culture and environment so far removed from our everyday reality, we must approach it with a take on storytelling that is unlike the modes we are accustomed to. The layered soundscape, which is programmed live on stage, is intensified by flashes of lighting, swirling projection art and haze. The creative time behind this spectacle have absolutely earned their stripes – with design by Michael Levine, lighting by Paul Anderson and projection art from Will Duke. Under the direction of Simon McBurney and associate director Jemima James, Katz’s performance style takes cues from contemporary dance, spoken word, body percussion – you name it. As an audience, it’s like being taken by the hand and led into a dreamland. Simply put: it’s psychedelic.
For Katz’ final delivery he produces a note from Simon McBurney, the play’s director and original performer. It was too easy to forget that Katz was playing a role from the very start.
The Encounter celebrates everything it touches. This is the kind of production that makes leaving the theatre, blinking into the lights of the foyer and re-entering the outside world seem like a strange and unusual encounter.