The Encounter, Edinburgh International Festival review: a five-star hallucinogenic trip with Complicite

Audiences wear headphones for Simon McBurney's new one-man show about the Amazon jungle

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In a festival already over-populated by men and microphones, Simon McBurney has produced something of a game-changer.

He hasn't taken up stand-up, though he begins his new solo show with a few minutes of deceptively low-key knockabout chat. After that, he gets on with the real business of transforming a chilly Edinburgh conference centre into the humid, hallucinogenic depths of the Amazon jungle, using only his voice and a couple of microphones. 

Complicite's brand new show, which will transfer to London's Barbican in February 2016, is a hi-tech trip. The audience wear headphones that are of such quality that when McBurney speaks into the left ear of a mannequin on stage, you can practically feel his breath on your ear; and when he buzzes a mosquito sound around the right ear, you all but bat it away. This is binaural technology - sounds recorded and transmitted separately into each ear — and McBurney uses his new toy to bring his story thrillingly, intimately alive.

That story, based on Petru Popescu's new book, Amazon Beaming, traces the journey of the National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre into the Brazilian Amazon in 1969. He was there to shoot the Mayoruna tribe, but when he found them and began to follow them, he failed to mark his tracks back to his plane. Lost in the rainforest, he was forced to live among the tribe, though they shared no language.

It is an incredible story, beautifully written. The tribal leader has warts on his legs “like barnacles” and wears a “diadem of white egret feathers”. There are red-cheeked men and dancing boys, jaguars and maggots, fires and floods and rituals with hallucinogenic toads. It is, primarily, a cracking yarn but it sucks in bigger ideas at every narrative twist. Is it possible to communicate without words? What good are possessions? Could modern man to remove himself from time? What will become of these tribes if the oilmen win?

For all its sound wizardry (overseen by Gareth Fry), this is also rather lo-tech, old-fashioned storytelling, where a bottle of water makes the sound of a Cessna landing on the river, a packet of crisps stands in for a crackling fire and two brooms evoke the feeling of being trapped in a thorn bush. It's a bedtime tale, with added Foley effects. McBurney wheels and whirls around the stage, swapping voice from narrator to McIntyre to tribesman like a shaman. He is extraordinary.

Two hours without an interval is too long, but this is masterful storytelling from a man and a company who are incapable of remaining within known theatrical boundaries. A must-see - or perhaps I should say, a must-hear.

EICC, to 23 August (0131 473 2000; www.eif.co.uk).

Comments