‘I was almost asleep for most of that’, does not on the surface seem like a very positive thing to say about a trip to the theatre. But in the case of watching (or listening) to The Encounter by Simon McBurney’s company Complicite, it was actually a good thing.
The Encounter using ‘binaural’ technology to tell the story of a photographer’s travels into the Amazon in search of the Mayoruna people. Which sounds very complex, but in reality involves technology of the kind I imagine exists in the Archer’s radio studio – we don’t get any clipclop horseys courtesy of coconut shells, but we do get a lot of rain and river water from sloshing bottles of Evian about and a fair amount of Amazonian undergrowth represented via stomping about in reams of VHS tape. I actually like the lo-fi aesthetic of this aspect of the storytelling, similar as it is to several shows recently on at the Bristol Festival of Puppetry that employed, for instance, black bin bags to recreate the sea or puppeteers whistling as the wind.
The problem is I’m not sure McBurney intends us to enjoy the ‘lo-fi’ quality of the work; I think he wants us to marvel at the binaural head which looms like the remains of an unlucky robot in France circa 1789 throughout the show. The binaural soundscape transmitted to audience members via headphones is undeniably effective, but I can’t quite appreciate what is so fancy about this as opposed to, say, surround sound, but then I’ve never understood why people want to spend Saturday afternoon going for a demonstration in a Bose showroom, so perhaps I’m the wrong person to comment. In fact, the last time I got excited about surround sound was during the Bristol Proms 2015 when the Erebus Ensemble sang Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium performed in the round in order to recreate how the composer originally intended it to be heard. In the intervening years since 1570, I can’t quite admit to detecting great advances in this way of hearing noise, but equally if it was good enough for Tallis it’s good enough for me (a phrase I am known to frequently utter) and on the whole I really enjoyed my time spent letting the Amazonian rainforest seep into my consciousness.
Which is where the semi-sleeping comes into it, and also another Bristol Proms past event. In 2014 Tom Morris, Artistic Director at the Bristol Old Vic, presented a workshop discussing the preference between listening to live music with your eyes open or closed. From the audience response at the event, we can suggest that people are pretty much split 50-50 on this point, with myself falling very much into the latter category (and therefore always walking a precipitous edge between sleepfulness and wakefulness at classical concerts). The binaural experience created by McBurney works superbly when listened to with the eyes closed, not least because this prevents the listener getting distracted by seeing that the rushing water is but a bottle of water and the circling birds are just McBurney bobbing round the impaled head making squawking noises.
For a show that lasts for 2 hours with no interval, I probably spent about 1hour 45 minutes with eyes closed and eventually achieved some sort of weird meditative state, fully aware of the noises going into my ears but marginally shocked to be periodically back in the Old Vic, kind of like when you nod off on a train and then awaken, worried you might have mumbled something weird inadvertently, like ‘Death to George Osborne’ as the train pulled into Swindon.
There was definitely a less attractive side to this show. An over-earnestness that causes the middle-classes to keep uttering the word ‘profound’ whilst staring at an Aboriginal painting of a lizard or to nod along in deep seriousness to the sound of rain sticks and didgeridoos without really having any idea what’s going on – it could, for instance be a ditty about a drunk kangaroo, but for the English listener it’s the sound of sorrow and profundity. Comments on ‘what is fact / what is fiction’ also strayed perilously close to being all a bit stoner-undergraduate on the first year of a Philosophy degree. But that’s kind of nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking, as the experience overall of being in the audience was highly enjoyable and offered encouragement to drift off, eyes closed, in a theatre more often.