The Encounter (Complicite-Bristol Old Vic) *****

The Encounter- photo by Robbie Jack

The Encounter- photo by Robbie Jack

What a week for Bristol Old Vic! Tim Crouch bringing his influential An Oak Tree to the studio, Sally Cookson’s Jane Eyre opening at the Lyttleton and finally justifying the national in National Theatre and finally Complicite’s The Encounter blasting onto its main stage and providing something of a game changer.

Monologues have provided some of the highlights this year, January in Bristol opened with a sucker punch one-two of Fleabag and Grounded. The first was a typical fringe piece, small in scale if not in ideas and execution while the second had more bang for your buck in Christopher Haydon’s enclosed box production. Simon McBurney’s one man performance works at another level again, as epic in its way as Lear was for Shakespeare or The Cherry Orchard was for Chekhov. Is this Complicite’s own masterwork? It’s up there in the oeuvre of one of the world’s greatest and most influential theatre companies. This is a show bound to change the idea of what theatre can be and can do in the years to come.

It’s an aural sensation, played out as much in our headsets and in our minds as on the stage. Using binaural technology it takes as his source Petru Popescu’s blend of fiction and documentary Amazon Beaming and turns it into its own thrilling beast, both stereophonic radio play and live action performance by the ever watchable and master storyteller McBurney. From his writers study in London, with constant interruptions from his young daughter who can’t sleep, to the depths of the Amazonian jungle; in the real life tale of Lore McIntryre, a National Geographic photographer who in the late 1960’s found himself captured by the ‘cat people’; the Mayoruna tribe, protectors of the rain forest and an ‘alien’ danger to westerner McIntyre. Terrified for his life to begin with he begins a telekinetic communication with the head tribesman which comes to a head towards the climax with a shamanic ritual that sees a battle for his soul and a crazed destruction of the set.

The aural landscape designed by Gareth Fry and Peter Malkin is thrillingly realised (the sound design really will change the way sound design is thought about in future criticism). There are moments you turn in your seat convinced that the characters are speaking directly behind your shoulder. At another point we hear the sound of breath in our ear and it releases a physical sensation as our ear heats up and tingles, proof that all our senses are all deeply inter-connected. There are enough ideas here to sustain ten shows, just some of the themes I picked up on was paternity, the role of creativity in defining human experience and a call to arms for human beings to connect on a far deeper spiritual basis.

Over two hours without an interval at times it all moves along at such a gallop that its denseness can occasionally lose us and it requires an act of will on behalf of its audience to keep up. Still there is enough gentle humour to remind us that this was a company that once won the Perrier, while the juggling of pitch, not just in its aural landscapes but also in its plotting and emotional tone, is spot on.

With Michael Billington’s recent assertions that regional theatres are falling into a cultural desert with work that is becoming safer and more staid as result, Bristol Old Vic have this week given a rather eloquent up yours to him.  Helped along with masters of the theatrical form Crouch, McBurney and Cookson proves that the very best work is not the preserve of London alone and proves we shouldn’t write off the regions just yet.

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