Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Encounter (Sydney Festival)

The Encounter, inspired by the book Amazon Dreaming by Petru Popescu.  Complicite (UK) at Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, January 18-28, 2017.

Director – Simon McBurney; Co-Director – Kirsty Housley
Performer – Richard Katz
Designer – Michael Levine; Sound – Gareth Fry with Pete Malkin; Lighting – Paul Anderson; Projection – Will Duke; Sound Supervisor – Guy Coletta; Sound Engineers – Amir Sherhan, Laura Hammond, Samantha Broomfield

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 21

It’s not possible to see and hear (in your stereo headset) The Encounter without your mind becoming absolutely engaged in philosophical questions about the nature of human culture.

The ‘performer’ demonstrates the sound equipment before the main story begins, to show us that we cannot actually know which is live through his microphone and which is recorded.  He develops this into an argument that all human cultures consist of memories which also cannot distinguish between what is (or was) real from fiction: that is, all cultures are based on story-telling.
The key issue in reviewing the story is that this philosophical position prevents us from making a distinction between knowledge gained via strict use of scientific method as against culturally held beliefs.  We may give respect to all the amazing variety of beliefs taken to be true in cultures past and present.  Does that imply that all such beliefs must have equal standing?  Is properly-done science to be taken as just the latest fashion in philosophical (which includes religious) beliefs in so-called ‘modern’ culture?

The question of the status of science becomes at one point a key concern for the central character in this memory story when he comes up against a rare Indigenous culture.

The story, told through our headsets while we watch Richard Katz apparently talking through various microphones and manipulating electronic equipment and other objects on stage (I began to suspect the whole thing is pre-recorded while he does an ‘air’ show), is based on Petru Popescu's being “mesmerised by Loren [McIntyre’s] accounts of being kidnapped by elusive tribes and of discovering the source of the giant [Amazon] river”.

The result is a highly sophisticated soundscape, cleverly made to take us imaginatively into three ‘times’:

With Loren, a real life National Geographic photographer, in 1969 attempting to prove to the outside world that a previously unknown tribe still existed in the forest (at least he thought it was untouched by grasping ‘modern’ hands);

And apparently with Katz telling us Loren’s story right now;

And apparently in Katz’s home studio a few years ago while looking after his young daughter who wants him to read her a story before she will go to sleep, at the same time as he is trying to put all the recordings together to make up the story which we are hearing about Loren.
Got that?

The problem philosophically for me is that the show concludes with a plea from the director, Simon McBurney, to save the Amazonian rainforest essentially only to preserve the Indigenous people in situ with their cultural beliefs.  The trouble is that we have already been alerted to not being able to know what is real and what is fiction – including McBurney’s letter being read to us in the audience, by the performer, Richard Katz.

Climate change was briefly referred to, so at least we might consider that current scientifically-strong argument for saving rainforest everywhere.  Thunder, lightning and flooding rainstorms apparently even saved Loren McIntyre, who miraculously escaped his kidnappers and the deaths they suffered by floating on an improvised raft without injury down the Mighty Amazon!  Can we believe this?

Well, apparently Popescu, after defecting to California from his position as Romania’s best-known novelist, on a trip to Amazonia met McIntyre “who shared his life story with the writer.”

Technically, the 3D audio is brilliantly done from the very beginning, with “If these voices are in the wrong ears, please turn your headset around” – not your ears – through to Katz’s position on stage in relation to a central microphone cum wifi system, sculptured to look like a head, being reflected in your ears in complete 3D.  So sounds as part of Loren’s story can seem to be heard from all around you, with lots of opportunities for unexpected shocks.  I’ve acknowledged the whole sound team for making all this work so well.

On the purely theatrical side, I think the telling of the main story could be cut by about 20 minutes.  I found myself becoming lost in the minutiae, quite often with my eyes closed rather than watching the performance, and waiting for the end – which ironically (and quite interestingly) turns out to be the beginning – the source of the Amazon seeming to represent the beginning of time and the origin of everything.  At least as the tribe concerned apparently thought about it.  A final philosophical twist.

So, my conclusion: hmmm….

The Encounter stage set while audience is taking their seats.
Central microphone stand with unit head-shaped