The Encounter

The following article was first published in the May 2016 edition of Viva Brighton magazine:

An Amazonian adventure in Falmer

The London-based Complicite touring theatre company launched in 1983 and gained a reputation for producing “the most imaginative theatre to be found anywhere”, according to David Lister of The Independent. This month they’re bringing an already sold-out show called The Encounter to the recently-refurbished Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, which is on the University of Sussex campus at Falmer. Now named after the work of Lord (Richard) Attenborough and his family, the building was previously known as the Gardner Arts Centre.

Kirsty Housley, who’s co-directing The Encounter, thought she’d only be involved for a few weeks of research when she joined the production team in 2010. “That couple of weeks turned into a few months… and then the project kind-of continued, really”, she tells me. It’s part of the distinctive way Complicite operates. “Each time a project is created, a company is built around that project. There’s a genuine ‘not knowing’ at the beginning of the process. You relinquish an element of control, which is quite scary.” In addition, the work they do is never seen as finished. “You never lock something down and say ‘that’s it, keep it exactly as it is now, repeat what you’re doing’. So there’s always a sense of evolution in the performance as well.”

Performing in The Encounter is Complicite co-founder Simon McBurney, who’s known to many as the sinister MI6 man in last year’s Mission: Impossible film and as the often unsympathetic Archbishop Robert in TV sitcom Rev. The story is adapted from a book called Amazon Beaming, which tells the adventures of photojournalist Loren McIntyre. In 1969, McIntyre went looking for the elusive Mayoruna tribe in South America. Also known as the Matsés, they were popularly referred to as ‘cat people’ because of their facial tattoos and the whisker-like spines they wore in their noses. He found them – but, as he followed a group into the rainforest, he lost track of his original route. McIntyre’s planned three-day trip turned into weeks spent with people who shared no common language with him. Yet much to the photographer’s surprise, he seemed to develop a wordless way of communicating with the tribe’s elderly leader.

Which helps to explain why The Encounter doesn’t tell McIntyre’s story with conventional imagery. Simon McBurney performs it as a one-man show, assisted by binaural headsets that blend his performance with sound effects to put the audience in the heart of the jungle. “A lot of the technology had to be custom-built”, says Kirsty Housley. “We create the feeling of being somewhere rather than trying to visually represent what that place looks like. You don’t see any creepers or any green leaves. Like all theatre, it really takes place in your imagination rather than on the stage.”

The Encounter runs from Wednesday 11 until Sunday 15.