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Simon McBurney - The Encounter

Simon McBurney has just had a baby. Or rather, two days before he talks to the Herald, the 57 year-old Lecoq-trained actor, director and co-founder with Annabel Arden and Marcello Magni of the globally-renowned Complicitie company was at his wife's side as she gave birth to the couple's third child. This is evident in McBurney's weary-sounding demeanour as he talks about the background to The Encounter, his solo performance which he and Complicite are bringing to Edinburgh International Festival in co-production with EIF and a host of international partners.

“It's chaos in my house just now,” he says, dealing with everyday domestic events as he goes, in constant but slowish motion. This includes locating a phone charger, making his wife a cup of tea and taking it to her in bed, and being interrupted by his young daughter asking how tall she is.

One way or another McBurney is living in the moment, even as his free-flowing tumble of conversation is by turns philosophical, understandably distracted and increasingly insular. All of which speaks volumes about The Encounter, which the audience at Edinburgh International Conference Centre will experience wearing headphones throughout.

“You just have to imagine really,” says McBurney as he goes about his business. “Partly because as a show it's a single person onstage, and the last thing you want to do is to bore people because you're alone. That idea in itself becomes part of the piece, which is about being alone and how you communicate through that, which at the moment I'm doing with difficulty, but with joy.”

The Encounter is inspired by Amazon Beaming, Romanian writer and film director Petru Popescu's account of National Geographic photo-journalist Loren McIntyre's 1969 trip to the Javari Valley, on the border between Brazil and Peru. McIntyre spent three months with a rarely sighted Mayoruna tribe, with whom he claimed to have communicated through a form of telepathy known as 'beaming'. This involved an ancient ritual involving fasting, dancing and ingesting natural hallucinogens that seemingly transported its arbiters back to the dawn of time.

When McBurney first read Popescu's book, McIntryre's quest opened McBurney up to an adventure of his own.

“I find myself going back and back,” he says when asked about the roots of The Encounter, “and I never quite know where the beginning is, but I was given a copy of Amazon Beaming by my mentor, the theatre director Anne Castledine in the early nineties, and I was fascinated by it. I thought about making something of it then, but it never happened, perhaps because I thought it wasn't possible, but it wouldn't go away.

“That's not just about this amazing story about finding this undiscovered tribe. At its heart is a story about a man who finds himself in circumstances beyond his control, and who discovers he is with a group of people fleeing colonial coercion and invasion of their land. As he discovers, they decide to respond, not with conflict, but by creating a piece of ritual that allows them to jump back to a time when there were no white people, and where they can begin again. This opens up huge questions about how we are in the world.”

In terms of what happens onstage, McBurney looked to an article by John Berger, the author of Ways of Seeing who McBurney and Complicite have collaborated with on works such as To The Wedding, The Vertical Line and Vanishing Points.

“He says that the principal of storytelling is about listening,” McBurney explains, “so the heart of the piece is about what you can hear. It also concerns, not just the book, but the fact that I'm telling a story in which the people I've met along the way come into things as well.”

As if on cue, McBurney's daughter asks a second time how tall she is. McBurney listens, then patiently explains that she's taller than she was before. His daughter wanders off, and McBurney tunes back into The Encounter.

“So The Encounter is about listening,” he says, “and it's about solitude. On one level the theatre is the least solitary place in the world, because there's a collective consciousness there between the people onstage and the audience,and we hear laughter and so on, and we understand that we're not alone.

“This sort of interaction concerns me, perhaps because I've had a family so late in life, perhaps because I've had a theatre family, but there are also crucial connections we need to think about, like those with the eco-system of the planet and with a post-industrial society that's run on neo-liberalism and consumer capitalism. We think we are completely separate individuals, and that therefore I can do anything without affecting you, but that's not the case. Everything we do impacts on everything else.

“In terms of The Encounter, here is a story of an individual who sees himself separate from everything else, and a people who live as they do, and I suppose what happens is this question of inter-connectedness that's right at the heart of the story as he has to learn to think in a completely different way.”

McBurney stops and asks the time, as if he might have to be somewhere or is on a deadline. Then, “It's the same time for everyone, except for those who don't count the minutes. As Marcus du Sautoy says,” he continues, quoting the Oxford professor who has done much to popularise mathematics, “this idea we have of man is a fiction. Most of what we consider to be true is actually a fiction, and when you're making theatre, that reality is something we have to consider.

“Our ability to create fiction is what makes us human, but things like money, England, Scotland, the way we measure time, they don't exist. They help us navigate the planet, but the more fiction we make, the more we lose sight of reality.”

McBurney's meditation on time and consciousness in The Encounter sounds as far removed from Theatre de Complicitie, as the company was originally known, winning the Perrier comedy award on the 1985 Edinburgh Festival Fringe as it is from his unlikely film roles in the Harry Potter franchise and the latest Mission Impossible flick.

In the thirty-two years since Complicite first enlivened the UK's theatre scene with a European-influenced physical style that was still rare in a literature-led environment, the company has remained something of a stylistic shape-shifter. Typically, McBurney explains such a fluid development by putting flesh and blood on it.

“Your body is made up of completely different cells to what was there a year ago,” he says, “and the company is more of an organism than a company, constantly changing and shifting according to the subjects we tackle.

“I've always seen what we do it as a multi-layered experience that's very much like music. One of the consistent aspects of our work is to want audiences to experience something rather than just sit in front of something. I don't quite know what I mean by that, but I suppose it's about how little time we spend in the present.

“In theatre, and in live music, that is when we get to experience the collective present, and that's a very powerful thing. It's the same with birth,” he says, before taking the tea up to the mother of his new-born. “Watching my wife give birth I became aware of how close to death it was at every moment. The pain of coming into the world must be very close to the pain of death.”

The Encounter, Edinburgh International Conference Centre, August 8th-10th, 16th-17th, 19th, 21st-22nd, 7.30pm; August 14th-15th, 20th, 23rd, 2.30pm.
www.eif.co.uk

The Herald, August 5th 2015

ends

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