Simon McBurney tells Susan Mansfield about survival in the Amazon jungle and why audiences at his new show will have to wear headphones
In the last week of a July, many a director is burning the midnight oil, putting the finishing touches to their Edinburgh show, and Simon McBurney is no exception. The creative force behind Complicite has been known to take a show right up to the wire – it’s said he once made up an ending on opening night – so the fact that The Encounter, due to have its premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival next weekend, is still a work in progress is no surprise.
“It’s in bits all over the floor,” he says. “In fact we’re still awaiting some pieces, which for some reason have not been supplied to us. My mind has not supplied them. I’m in the crucible, stoking coal in the furnace.”
McBurney is the writer and sole performer in The Encounter, though there is a sizeable creative and technical team: the show is “logistically fairly complicated”, with each member of the audience wearing headphones. “It’s very terrifying to be opening at the International Festival,” McBurney says.
“I’ve never had the show in front of an audience so I don’t know whether it’ll work. The curious thing is that things don’t seem to get easier. I thought that maybe they would get easier because you would have more experience, but they seem to get a great deal harder.”
It’s hard, too, to talk about a show which is still being made, so we let the conversation meander round its edges, from a journey up the Amazon to a soundproof room in Watford, elements which are even now coalescing into a piece of theatre. Oh, and the nature of consciousness. McBurney has been fascinated by it since he made Mnemonic in 1999. “If I were to ask you, ‘Are you conscious?’, you’ll say ‘Yes I am conscious’. But the curious thing is, the more you ask yourself that question, the more doubtful it becomes. Such a tiny proportion of our lives is spent being conscious. You’re not really conscious of your breakfast digesting or what is going on inside your cells, and yet that is part of who you are.”
Conversation with McBurney is like this, by turns, deep, provocative, confiding. His polymath mind grazes over a range of subjects, always questioning, wanting to learn. Sometimes he falls silent, deep in thought. A distinctive figure with a dishevelled head of grey hair, he combines a sense of contemplation with a vigorous energy. A look over his accomplishments shows how busy he is.
He is sought-after as a director (he directed Al Pacino in The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui, and the Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, starring John Lithgow and Katie Holmes, to name but two). He was writer and executive producer on Mr Bean’s Holiday and he keeps up an acting career as well, from parts in Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1, The Duchess, The Last King Of Scotland and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, to a regular gig as supercilious Archdeacon Robert in the sitcom Rev.
Complicite cut its teeth at the Fringe, winning the Perrier Award in 1985 for Thatcherite satire More Bigger Snacks Now, and has gone on – as a collaborative “community” with McBurney in charge – to undertake a wide range of productions, from classic plays to adaptations from Bulgakov, John Berger and Haruki Murakami. Complicite’s approach – to draw on a wide range of theatrical techniques, from mime and movement to music and technology, the balance changing with each show, has been enormously influential figure on the next generation of theatre-makers.
The Encounter has its starting point in a book, Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu, the story of American photographer Loren McIntyre who, in 1969, found himself effectively kidnapped by the Mayoruna people in a remote valley on the border of Brazil and Peru and established a telepathic connection with the tribe’s shaman.
McBurney read it 20 years ago and it stayed with him, but many books do. This one floated to the top of the pile perhaps because it took on a kind of urgency. McIntyre didn’t tell his story for 20 years, only doing so after returning to Brazil in the early 1990s to photograph the destruction of the rainforests.
“He is us, Western man or woman, coming in contact with another culture, and perhaps discovering that they have something to say which is extremely urgent,” says McBurney. “It becomes more urgent to him as he gets older. It is an encounter, an encounter between two men, but it’s about more than that, because there’s a confrontation with extremely important questions about resistance, survival, time and consciousness.”
McBurney then made his own journey deep into the Amazon to spend time in a Mayoruna village. Forty-five years after McIntyre, he found the tribesmen had university degrees and smart phones, but also had a fierce sense of the importance of their traditional identity. “They were amazing in their determination and self-determination. They’d gone out from the village, gone to university, come back determined to teach each other and to relearn their culture and language. They wanted to know why I was there, and having to tell them the story and engage with them was a very moving and important experience.”
He travelled with sophisticated binaural recording equipment and recorded the sounds of the rainforests. The form of the show evolved through much thinking about the nature of individual and collective consciousness. Speaking to the audience on headphones allows him to play with the nature of theatre as a collective experience.
“My children are bound up in this [he has had three children in his fifties, with partner Cassie Yukawa] because I tell them a lot of stories, and what I’m doing on stage is telling a story to the audience. My experience of my father reading to me is where I learned to empathise with other people, that it wasn’t just my ego on the planet. I am trying to place the audience in a situation where they empathise or understand something to do with Loren McIntyre, perhaps meditate on what he did, and the implications of what he did. One way of creating that intimacy was to speak to people through headphones.”
It was an interest in sound, and how we listen, that took him to the Building Research Establishment in Watford to sit in an anechoic chamber, a room so soundproof that even echoes are absorbed. Sitting in the dark, he became conscious of the tiniest sounds inside his own body. But the real shock was emerging back into the cacophony of the modern world.
“You cannot believe the roar of the world outside,” says McBurney. “For me, being in the anechoic chamber is not just about sound, it’s about the way that we hear things. The brain filters things out, so we hear only what we want to hear, what we need to hear. The same can be said of all the stories that we’re told. We believe the political stories that we want to hear and we filter out the rest.”
The political impetus driving the show crystallised on a second visit to Brazil, to a Yawalapiti village in the Xingu, the national park in the centre of the country in which indigenous people are free to live traditionally. Living without clocks or electricity, McBurney describes how – as McIntyre did – he swiftly lost all Western sense of time. But at the same time, it was impossible to ignore the impact of the modern world. Flying in to the Xingu, he looked down on vast soya plantations the size of Belgium where genetically modified crops are raised on ground pumped with pesticides, and exported to feed cattle in the west.
“You can’t be left unaffected by seeing those soya fields,” McBurney says. “It’s not really possible at this point to separate the political from anything we do. The overarching question in all of our politics right now is: how do we think in another way, because we’re heading towards a precipice of some sort. You can’t have endless growth, there is a finite amount of space on the planet.
“One of the problems with the idea of climate change is we tend to think of ourselves as separate from the eco-system, and we’re not.
“I think this may be the key to why I’m telling this story. We say the Amazon’s a long way away, it’s nothing to do with us, what about our problems? But it’s impossible to separate our problems from any other problems now. I believe everything is interconnected.”
The Encounter, Edinburgh International Conference Centre, 8-22 Aug / listings
Main image: Gianmarco Bresadola