A new play by Complicite/Simon McBurney
A review by Garry Kennard
Reaching London’s Barbican Centre from the Barbican underground station is one of the darkest experiences to be had when approaching an arts venue in London. One traverses an appalling tunnel of traffic and squalor before emerging into Silk Street and the glowing possibilities available in the Barbican. But maybe it was an appropriate overture to what was to come. I was heading for a performance of Simon McBurney and Complicite’s new theatre piece, ‘The Encounter’, which takes one on an even darker but ultimately liberating journey not only into the Amazonian jungles but through the labyrinth of consciousness itself.
On entering the Barbican Centre, my path deviated from that of the rest of the audience. I was to take part in an experiment set up by the science writer Rita Carter’s Hive Mind organisation and was directed to a room off. This experiment was part of Hive Mind’s series of explorations of ‘crowd consciousness’. The mirroring of psychological states among individuals is well known. Mirror neurons, for example, automatically place a person in a similar state of mind to someone they see expressing an emotion or acting in a particular way, and these have been observed in action over many years. However, until now, no one has looked directly at what is happening in the brains of a group of people sharing a real-life experience. The equipment required for this has in the past been far too cumbersome. Now, by using lightweight portable EEG headsets, combined with a multiple datastream, it is possible to look at brain activity in a group as a whole. By comparing the reactions of individual people to those in a group having the same experience, it would be possible to observe if the recorded brain activity shows any significant difference in each scenario. This would seem highly likely as we have all seen groups of people acting as if with one ‘mind’ – in sports crowds or political demonstrations for example. Perhaps now we will be able to monitor the mechanism of such phenomena.
This experiment is an important development in the dialogue between science and art. It will go someway to help redefining how we react to works of art, and how opinion is formed, both in the individual and in society at large. The results of such research hands back to the individual an understanding of his or her own reactions from which to form opinions, rather than having them imposed by whoever the current art gurus are. The project is a unique enterprise and should be encouraged and supported. We will have to wait for some time for all the data to be gathered in from the various experiments needed to complete the research, but one can follow its progress on the Hive Mind web site at http://hivemind.qeeg.co.uk/.
I joined my fellow experimentees, around 20 individuals, in a side room of the theatre and was fitted with my headset. This was like a conventional headset only it hooked behind ones ears, with the headband coming around the forehead like a thin bandana. I had the impression, when we were all fitted up, that I had joined a Keith Richard fan club convention. Our heads now ready to transmit their data, we were led to our seats in the vertiginous front row of the ‘gods’.
‘The Encounter’ is a piece for one actor – in this case the play’s devisor Simon McBurney. I say one actor. However, McBurney has contrived a show wherein, by the extraordinarily brilliant use of binaural sound effects, one had the impression that the stage was populated at various times by a large variety of characters – and creatures – and took place in several landscapes and settings. For this to work the whole audience had to wear conventional headsets. In our case we had two contraptions on our heads, the audio head sets and our EEG equipment.
McBurney started the evening by inducing the audience into a sense of intimacy by chatting to them in real time – complaining of – and to – latecomers and talking about the situation on stage. He then drifted into explaining and experimenting with the binaural effects. There was a single schematic ‘head’ on a pole centre stage and this seemed to contain the equipment with which he made his effects. He also used two microphones set up by a formica-topped table. As the play continues, one becomes totally confused as to whether this equipment is in fact in use, as voices and effects seem to being created and broadcast from all over the place. However the soundscape is produced, the effect is stunning. In the opening monologue in which McBurney muses on consciousness and time, various other expert and non-expert voices join his, gradually becoming a dense layer of sound which in turn becomes the roar of a single engine plane as it careers over the Amazonian jungles and rivers. McBurney becomes the pilot of the plane simply by standing with his back to us in a strip of light and taking up a stick, which then become the plane’s wings and steering. It is a dramatic coup de theatre and highly effective. We were time and again transported into this world and this story with real force by such simple maneuvres. We were in effect in the plane and in the play.
And what of the story? It tells of the photojournalist Loren McIntyre’s experience of getting lost while on an assignment to photograph a remote tribe in the Amazonian jungle. He ends up having to live with these people, the Mayoruna, for some days. As he cannot find his way out or feed himself without them he must stay with them. In the process, he becomes more and more estranged from his own culture, losing the last trappings of his profession (his films and camera) and his ‘civilisation’, his watch and most of his clothes. But the narrative goes deeper as he also loses all sense of his previous identity, becoming more and more attuned to those around him. There was a further resonance for those of us being monitored for our group reactions – was McIntyre’s psyche being over-run by the group he was now utterly dependent on? His psychological state becomes such that he believes he is somehow communicating with the headman through a form of telepathy. Whether this is true or not is beside the point, as what we are witnessing is the dismantling of what McIntyre presumes makes him what he is. His past persona had been constructed by his now remote home community in the States by the things it values. When these are stripped away, what is left of his sense of self – his sense of meaning in life? He moves through a series of trials, both by accident and inflicted on him by the tribe which gradually lay him naked both physically and psychologically. The tribe is continually on the move trying, as they say, to get back to ‘the beginning’, and McIntyre has no choice but to follow them. This journey ends in series of cataclysmic scenes where the tribe burns everything they have, all their possessions, which in turn leads McIntyre to imagine, and carry out on stage, a violent rejection of all his own material life, smashing to pieces every vestige of what he has now come to realize as useless impedimenta – ‘this fucking shit! – , mirroring the acts of the tribe. Further, his near starvation and his consumption of mind altering drugs, his joining in of endless rhythmic dancing, changes his way not only of perceiving the material world but of existence itself, seeing, as many mystics do, a oneness of matter and thought, melting together all sensation and perception in an hallucinogenic dream – or nightmare.
It is an exhausting and harrowing experience made utterly tangible by the sound landscape in which we seem to be existing alongside the action. The play performs one of the most profound duties of performance art, in that it becomes a cathartic shriving of some of our deepest worries and fears – in this case about the way we create our personal identity and how we perceive the world. It also says some things about consciousness itself which may or may not be to everyone’s taste. The telepathic sequences for me left it, none the worse to my mind, steadfastly in the realm of myth and not a factual reconstruction of real events.
The audience was deeply appreciative of this performance. McBurney received a deserved standing ovation. I wondered, looking down from my godlike position, how they had been affected. Had it made them consider their own ways of perception, their own constructed identity, and how fragile that might be? Did they consider the possibility that they might disentangle themselves from the ‘civilisation’ they happen to have been born into and find another way of being in the world? Was it also a demonstration of group consciousness, formed for the moment in the theatre and dissipated soon after outside in the locally constructed world?
There is some irony in the nature of the production itself. While McIntyre is smashing all ‘this fucking shit’ of his attached life, the story is being relayed by the most sophisticated set of theatrical electronic trappings imaginable.
My only quibble – I found the production too long. But then I find most productions too long these days. At just over two hours without a break it almost, but not quite, induced some bum shuffling. It is interesting that being isolated by wearing the head sets, free from distractions from the audience, I seemed to be able to concentrate with great attention to what was going on for the whole length of the play. Rita Carter’s experiment is aware of this, and is treating it as an opportunity to examine group reactions in such conditions and be able therefore to compare it with situations where subjects are not so constrained.
One is left with the stimulating, or perhaps terrifying, fact that in our age we must construct our own individual identities from scratch, no mean feat in a universe which is indifferent to our being here at all. We must thank Simon McBurney for laying these questions before us and examining their implications in a truly dramatic and wildly imaginative form.
One emerges from the Barbican Centre only to retrace the dark and disturbing steps through the roaring tunnel, perhaps with a different response to its significance and symbolism. But was there a light at the end of it?