Like much of our everyday lives, ‘The Encounter’ is not neatly delineated.
The show has begun before we are even aware of it, and this realisation is just the first of many in a production that playfully tackles the question of where the boundary lies between reality and fiction. It’s a concept that is enormously relevant in our post-truth world, a point explicitly brought up by the sole performer onstage, Richard Katz.
Ostensibly, ‘The Encounter’ tells the remarkable tale of a National Geographic photographer who became lost deep in the Amazon and spent six weeks living with an isolated tribe. During his time with the Mayoruna, Loren Mcintyre thought he was going mad as he began to communicate telepathically with the headman of the tribe and joined them on a journey to 'the beginning'.
At another level, it’s a deeply self-referential account of the conception of this production. Simon McBurney, who created this work, spent decades trying to figure out how to bring the story (first recounted in the book ‘The Encounter: Amazon Beaming’) to the stage. As well as a fiercely non-linear narrative, he makes ingenious use of binaural technology which brings a sense of immediacy to this tale.
Every audience member wears a pair of headphones while Katz uses a multi-directional microphone to capture full surround sound and transmit it directly to us. This method is remarkably effective; it’s hard not to turn around when we hear sounds that appear to be coming from directly behind us, and the feeling as he blows in our right ears is disconcerting to say the least.
As he prowls the stage, he creates a range of other sound effects from the props around him. He makes no attempt to hide this artifice, and the fact that he still manages to bring us deep into the story with him is testament both to his performance and an incredible script.
‘The Encounter’ is riveting throughout; that there is a lot of humour is remarkable and this truly is a masterful achievement. The telling of any tale relies on the suspension of disbelief, and the trick of ‘The Encounter’ is to include so many layers that it becomes as dense as the jungle that Mcintyre is trapped in.
Where the story begins and ends is often unclear, and if there is a protagonist at all, it is Katz. He is interrupted by his daughter who wants to hear a bedtime story in his London flat, then travels forward in time to interview contemporary Mayoruna people and physicists talking about the very nature of time before altering his voice to turn once again in Mcintyre.
They say that a magician never reveals his tricks. Katz does so willingly, explaining the artifice away casually, and the fact he still creates magic is all the more remarkable. It’s because, as he points out, we are empathising with the characters that he creates, with the character that he himself plays. Are they the sounds of his child that disrupt the performance, or of Simon McBurney’s? Is that really a video of them in his hands? The beauty is that it doesn’t matter.
These ontological questions lose value in the realisation that the truth is in the performance itself, and that we are privileged to be a part of it.
'The Encounter' plays at Adelaide Festival Centre until 11 March.