A World Made of Language

Art Categories:  Theatre, Performance


Simon McBurney in "The Encounter" © Joan Marcus 2016


We stand facing the new year a world divided. Politically, religiously and culturally we seem unable or unwilling to stop drawing more and more hard lines; liberal versus conservative, white versus color, immigrant versus native clash in a unending binary of thought that appears unbreachable. Terence McKenna discusses the metaphor of people are asleep, which by implication suggests they should awaken. Obviously, higher consciousness is approached by an expansion of clarity and awareness, but being dogmatic in the approach is counterintuitive.


Speaking of his own experiences in the Amazon jungle, he suggests a third way, a kind of semi-unconsciousness—the twilight state between waking and sleeping—is where we encounter the numinous. He illustrates this with the symbol of the Yin and Yang, “It’s not the black side. It’s not the white side. It’s the interface. It’s the edge.” So it’s with a curious sense of synchronicity that we find ourselves navigating the edge between two hard and fast, black and white categories—fiction and reality—in the mind-expanding, womblike sensorium that is the Complicite Production of The Encounter.


Mayoruna © Alicia Fox Photography

Conceived, directed and performed by Simon McBurney, and inspired by Petru Popescu’s book “Amazon Beaming”, The Encounter tells the story of National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre who in 1969, lost in the Brazilian Amazon, finds himself among the elusive Mayoruna people of the remote Javari Valley. Unsure whether he is in a jam or at the start of a great experience, McIntyre plunges headlong into an adventure of discovery, forgotten truths, and consciousness itself.


With mercurial virtuosity, Mr. McBurney creates a world made of language. Conceived for a single actor onstage, The Encounter requires the audience to wear headphones throughout the performance. This allows the show’s other star, the innovative and intimate sound design, to immerse us deeper into the Amazon and the minds of Mr. McBurney’s characters. “Don’t mistake fiction for reality,” he whispers in our ear at the beginning, but already the edges are blurring. New York City, with its concrete and steel, rigid structures and straight lines, may be the epitome of “reality”, yet somehow sitting in the John Golden Theatre, there we are, wandering through the lush underbrush of the Amazon.


Simon McBurney & Binaural Microphone © Robbie Jack

Much has been said about the technological magic of The Encounter’s sound design, including a 3D binaural microphone in the shape of a human head that sometimes acts as a character, but what touches us most about this concept is how it negotiates the edge between two other divisions: alienation and unity. Donning headphones in a shared situation such as an evening at the theater might seem anti-social, but by blocking out the ambient noise around us, we are all more fully immersed together. Each are cocooned in sound and tale, yet we journey as a whole. So we therefore become aware of our neighbors in a more compassionate way. This singular design brings us—individually and collectively at the same time—as close as possible to the felt presence of direct experience.


Simon McBurney in "The Encounter" © Joan Marcus 2016

Mr. McBurney shines in a tour de force of vocal, storytelling, acting, movement and tech wizardry. But, he says, there’s another show unfolding unseen. Offstage,  sound designers Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin are performing feats of aural gymnastics, creating and mixing the beats and breaths of the show as amalgamations of technician, musician and choreographer. Two hallucinatory sequences of wonder are Loren McIntyre’s desperate race through the jungle in which he becomes impaled upon a bush of thorns, and a psychoactive bonfire ceremony that transports us with such ecstasy that we too are roused to cast our very ego into the flames.


It’s this marriage of the seen and the unseen, the real and the imaginary, the live and the recorded that make The Encounter an essential piece of theatre. Mr. McBurney’s enthralling odyssey explores questions of materialism, progress, communication, and the nature of consciousness, reality and time. We come to realize that all of these questions are undeniably interconnected, like the root system of the Amazon itself.


Simon McBurney in "The Encounter" © Joan Marcus 2016

And if these questions have anything at all to teach us, if we are to evolve and thrive beyond these current challenging times, we must learn like Loren McIntyre did to embrace the uncertainty of life’s mysterious edges. The Encounter brings us a precious gift from the Mayorunae, who still remember the unspoken “old language”, who comfortably exist on the edge between worlds, who are inherently ok with the question that Mr. McBurney poses, “Am I telling the story, or is the story telling me?”



by Joseph Reid

Productions photos by Joan Marcus & Robbie Jack

Mayoruna photo by Alicia Fox Photography


The Encounter runs through Sunday January 8th at the John Golden Theatre, then tours to Ann Arbor, MI and Los Angeles, CA. Tickets for are available by calling Telecharge at 212-239-6200, online by visiting or or at the John Golden Theatre box office at 252 West 45th Street. The Encounter runs one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.