Sydney Festival Review: Take an immersive trip into the Amazon jungle with The Encounter (Performances until 28 January)

Picture yourself at the edge of a rainforest, standing in the sun, eager to embark on a trek. Signs point you towards the path and provide helpful information about the journey soon to be undertaken. As you progress down the track, the canopy begins to close over you. New sounds emerge to drown out the familiar hum of modern life. Insects buzz and bite. You are struck by the colour, by the otherness of this world compared to your usual environment.

From time to time, you may emerge in a clearing, a space that allows you to catch your breath, reacquaint yourself with your fellow trekkers. But around you loom the tall trees and the awaiting cacophony. Further along, the air becomes thicker, denser. Light is forced into tight beams, outlined by a soft mist. Shadows become pervasive. The colours are darker, deeper. The track is more difficult to traverse. How much further until you reach the centre? Or until you lose yourself?

This is the theatrical journey produced by The Encounter, an immersive experience that combines old and new story-telling techniques to bring you further into the action than ever before.

The brainchild of director and Complicite theatre company founder, Simon McBurney, The Encounter tells the story of Loren McIntyre, a photojournalist who journeyed to the Amazon to document the mysterious Mayoruna people. Alone in the jungle, McIntyre followed a small group of Mayorunans for many hours until they arrived at their camp. By this time, McIntyre was horribly lost and had no choice but to remain with the tribe to survive.

The main reason this production stands out from typical theatrical fare is its use of cutting-edge audio technology. Every audience member is provided a set of headphones, through which almost the entirety of the play’s soundtrack and dialogue are projected. What’s more, the soundscape is continually manipulated at the will of the performer and technicians. Sounds are played into the left ear, then the right, then appear to move in an arc overhead. The effect is like having your own, personal surround sound system.

As well as bringing a new level of intimacy to the theatrical audience, The Encounter’s audio technology is also used to decorate the set. Before attending the production, I was unsure how something like this would be staged. Would we see a rendering of the Amazonian jungle, complete with trees and vines and atmospheric fog, or would there simply be a blank stage, forcing us to close our eyes and simply imagine the dense foliage? In fact, the stage is decked out like a recording studio, with a variety of microphones and speaker boxes, a desk and odd bits and pieces of useful clutter. The backdrop is made from soundproofing tiles with pyramid shaped ridges. In the centre of the stage stands an odd figure – a binaural (3D audio) microphone which resembles a human head on a stick, allowing our narrator to appear to whisper directly into our ears.

As we follow McIntyre into the Amazon, the jungle’s sounds are created with ‘real world’ props. Ribbons of unspooled video tape bear an uncanny resemblance, when twisted and crushed, to the crunching of foliage underfoot. Animals can be invoked with the click of the tongue or the swoosh of air through pursed lips. And plastic water bottles are both juice-filled exotic fruits and the rushing river (and a nod to the environmental impact of a destructive Western custom). Occasionally music is added to the soundscape, making it rich and captivating.

But it is also a little disconcerting. Not having eyes in the back of our heads, humans rely heavily on hearing to detect movement, and possible threats, behind us. With the headphones on and a 3D audio soundscape almost completely blocking out the ‘real’ world, you realise you have no sense of the actions of the people behind you. Add to this some indiscernible shadows cast by lights shining from the back of the room, and a multitude of unintelligible sounds coming at you from all directions, and you’re experiencing a hint of the ominous uncertainty that McIntyre must have felt in the heart of the Amazon. Sound designers Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin, and the live audio technicians, deserve generous applause for their work.

Paul Anderson’s lighting design is not so much overshadowed by the audio design as it is a subtle, atmospheric accompaniment. Rectangular spots and gentle haze work almost imperceptibly to transform the recording devices on stage into Mayorunan huts, the jungle canopy and the very elements themselves. Combined with projections from Will Duke, the audience receives plenty of visual stimulation through the staging of this piece, effectively minimising the desire to just close the eyes and listen.

That desire is also obstructed by the show’s lone live performer, Richard Katz, who is just so darned charismatic! In the original production, McBurney performed the central role himself. In the current Australian tour, actor Katz takes the reigns and well and truly owns the stage. From his initial, casually-comedic engagement with the audience, to the powerful rage that overtakes him deep into the performance, Katz demonstrates enormous emotional range. At the same time, he handles the technology side with a practised hand – the show is seamless.

Ultimately, The Encounter gives us an ingenious new approach to theatrical story-telling. McIntyre’s story is set back when cameras still had film and mobile phones were figments of the imagination, but it is told using some of today’s most innovative, immersive technology.

It is also a story being shared by someone very much aware of the current landscape in which we exist – political, environmental, social and otherwise. There are many messages to be taken from the work, especially about the way Western civilisation engages with ancient cultures (which in many ways is the most resonant theme running through the 2017 Sydney Festival theatre program). To unpack them all here would take far too long, suffice to say you’ll have plenty to discuss on the trip home.

The Encounter can be experienced at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until 28th January. For tickets or more information, go here.

The reviewer attended the performance on Friday 20th January.

Photo credit Prudence Upton