Simon McBurney is one of European theatre’s most original and controversial artists working today. For more than 30 years he has led Complicite, the theatre company he co-founded in 1983 and his works have been seen in London’s National Theatre and the Barbican Center as well as throughout Europe. He’s also done a good deal of acting in British films and TV productions. He tells us that he has spent his life being disreputable, and he is still considered an outsider.
Judging by The Encounter, which has transferred to the Golden Theatre on Broadway from the Donmar Warehouse in London, one can readily see why that’s so. As conceived, directed and performed by Mr. McBurney, he’s given himself a role in a one-man play which takes us with him on a wild ride on the Amazon River via an explorer’s journey to a remote tribe in Brazil. He puts his odyssey inside the audiences’ heads as he supplies each of us with headphones from which we hear the voices of all the characters he comes across, including Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer who found himself lost among the people of the remote Jamari Valley in Brazil. It was an encounter that would change his life, bringing the limits of human consciousness into startling focus.
Sometimes we are in the middle of a group, now and then someone crops up behind or beside us, thus bringing order and power to the avalanche of words that he whispers, bellows, shrieks, and murmurs to us. Simon McBurney delivers a tour de force performance, one he shares on occasion with another actor, Richard Katz, who plays the role at a handful of midweek performances, so Mr. McBurney can catch his breath.
His telling takes just under two hours, and it comes at us without an intermission, so it’s somewhat overwhelming. At times, the story was difficult for me to follow, as it contains conversations with people we’ve never seen, and I found the exchanges confusing. There are some charming chit chats with the narrator’s tiny daughter, and McBurney’s captured the little girl totally with just his voice. But then, he does equally well with all his characters. He feels that an American audience will come to the play without preconceptions, with a sense of adventure. He wants to “entertain and surprise.”
It is all played out on a virtually bare stage, which means it’s best to absorb this material with your eyes closed, so that it takes on the aspect of a dream. With effective use of sound effects, it is far more successful at creating images than it would be if one watched the Narrator running around making animal noises; grunts, wheezes, and roars to conjure up our own images — looking at the star on stage will only destroy them. The sound design by Garth Fry and Pete Malkin as well as the projections by Will Duke are extraordinary.
I left the theatre with a “How does he do it?” question rattling around my brain, which it shared with another question,”Why does he do it?!” It will be interesting to discover if the American audiences give Mr. McBurney what he believes and hopes they will deliver – a suspension of disbelief and the willingness to listen to rather than totally experience his play. For me, the evening was very much like watching a brilliant actor play all the roles in a radio program, one which contained vividly drawn characters and an exotic and original setting.
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.
The Encounter is playing at The Golden Theatre – 252 West 45th Street
(Between Broadway and 8th Avenue), in New York City. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or 800-447-7400, or purchase them online.