Theatre review: The Encounter

This production shows how to stream theatre, says John Nathan


Last week, I called for theatre practitioners to consider how they might make online live streaming — theatre’s “sticking plaster” as the Old Vic’s Matthew Warchus calls it — less of misnomer. Because a so-called live stream is usually no more live than the light streaming through the lens of a cinema projector.

Of course, nothing can or will replace an audience being in the same room as a performance. Yet that sense of both sharing the same moment — if not the same space — might still be possible to preserve even as theatres face an existential threat.

Which brings us to another appeal, this time not to theatre-makers but to theatre watchers (formerly goers). There are a lot of productions online, much of them being provided free to a population in lockdown. Many thousands are watching. Fewer than that total are donating. But now there is a very real danger that we will lose theatres, especially those such as The Old Vic or The Menier Chocolate Factory which receive no subsidy. These playhouses will die if we don’t click on their website’s “donate” button whether they are streaming content or not. As Warchus says this week, theatre is in a “seriously perilous” situation. Theatregoers can and must save them.

In the meantime, the not-so-live stream of Complicité’s The Encounter, first seen in 2016, conveys a sense of the here-and-now in unexpected ways.

It retains the mind-expanding deceptions that in the original kept audiences constantly off balance and never quite sure whether what they were seeing and hearing is as it appeared.

The play is an adaptation of Petru Popescu’s book Amazon Beaming, about the late American explorer Loren McIntyre who, in 1971, made the first significant contact with the Mayoruna tribe.

As was the case with the original audience — back in the day when it was legal for people to congregate in front of a stage — it is essential to experience this online version while wearing headphones.

For accompanying McBurney in this one-man-show is a soundscape, created by sound designer Gareth Fry, that uses binaural technology. The result can make your spine tingle and even, as McBurney demonstrates its capabilities, one of your ears feel hot.

And yet despite the tech, what is so gripping is the narrative — a combination of survival story, with McBurney segueing into the character of the intrepid McIntyre, and anthropological study.

For those who saw the original, the stream is exciting because of how McBurney subverts the conventions of online viewing as he does the conventions of live theatre. The result transports the show into our world of lockdown better than any I have seen.

It would be criminal to reveal how this is done. But prepare for typically Complicité mind-expanding moments. And don’t forget your headphones.

For one week, from Friday 15 – Friday 22 May, Complicité’s award-winning production of The Encounter (2015), co-produced with and filmed at the Barbican, is available to stream here. Directed and performed by Simon McBurney, it will be accompanied by a live discussion event and public Q&A on Wednesday 20 May at 7.30pm. Audiences can register for the event at:


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