A conversation with British actor, writer and director Simon McBurney is a meditative adventure not unlike one of his genre-blurring theatrical collages created with his London-based internationally touring company, Complicite.
Sitting in a lounge off his dressing room after a matinee late last year when he was still performing his mind-bending solo piece, "The Encounter," on Broadway, he jumped naturally from one heady topic to the next. The subject of memory led him to the mystery of consciousness, which gave rise to musings on the human instinct for storytelling. (With McBurney, everything circles back eventually to art.)
The quicksilver intelligence will be familiar to those who have experienced one of Complicite's hallucinatory stage works, such as "Mnemonic," "A Disappearing Number" and "Shun-kin" (presented by UCLA's Center for the Art of Performance in 2013) — productions in which thinking itself seemed to float majestically along a stream of visually stunning theatricality.
"The Encounter," which has its official opening at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on April 7, was an uncommon sight on Broadway. Inspired by Petru Popescu's book "The Encounter: Amazon Beaming," an account of National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre's experiences in the Brazilian rainforest, the show unfolds like an experimental radio play in which the spectacle of creating the sound effects is part of the act.
Fittingly for a story about a man who loses not just his way but his perceptual bearings while searching for the source of the Amazon River, the production shuffles the senses of audience members. Theatergoers wear headphones and experience the photographer's disorientation in a direct auditory manner intended to open the mind's eye. McIntyre's mystical encounter with the Mayoruna tribe turns into a kind of theatrical acid-trip.
The 59-year-old McBurney is drawn to literary sources, but the Cambridge-educated director doesn't so much adapt prose narratives as transfigure them to the stage. For this edited conversation about "The Encounter," he spoke of testing his multimedia range while pursuing with feverish intensity those questions of identity and artistic representation that seem to be at the heart of all Complicite investigations.
"The Encounter" combines so many of your obsessions — memory, the nature of fiction, the power of theatrical ritual, the way culture informs our sense of reality. Does the production represent a grand synthesis of your work with Complicite?
What you say is true, but at the same time I'm sometimes unaware of any of those things because I'm just making something. And I want the thing to speak for itself. There is a very simple method of the show, which is about a man in his 50s who thinks he knows what he's doing and then becomes utterly lost. That's a literal sense of disorientation. But it's also, of course, like any human story, a metaphor. And I guess that in my 50s, I better understand what T.S. Eliot meant when he said as we get older, the world becomes stranger.
You play yourself onstage but then you merge into McIntyre. What was it about his story that drew you in?
I have felt quite lost, particularly in relation to this thing that we are — this curious amalgam of electrical impulses that then nonetheless provide a very powerful sense that you are Charles McNulty and I am Simon McBurney. We're passionate about our distinctiveness. And it's a very odd thing because we have the impression that we have chosen to be like that whereas the majority of things that we do are not choices despite our insistence on free will and autonomy.
Do you find venturing beyond familiar cultural territory helps to expose these forces at play on our identities?
I've never been terribly at home in the society that I grew up in, Western European society. I mean, I am, of course, Western European, so it's a ridiculous thing to say. But at the same time, there are things which just feel uncomfortable to me. So you're right in saying that I have certain obsessions about where I come from and what does it mean to be a person. "Mnemonic" was not just about remembering. It was about who am I. "The Encounter" takes this thought even further. Is what we think even real? There is a dominant thought process now on the planet, yet everywhere we look is violence and destruction. So is that really the only way we're capable of thinking. Or is there another way of seeing the world?
The piece is as much a philosophical — an epistemological — journey as a geographical one.
It's been difficult for people here [in the U.S.] to publicize the show because the story of the National Geographic photographer who was lost in the jungle, well, it sounds like a great adventure story but that's really only the literal surface level.
The show looks like it must be dizzying to perform.
I tend to get into a kind of trance when I'm doing it because it's like going down the river. The key thing is concentration and energy. It's almost like playing a piece of music.
Photographer Loren McIntyre's encounter with the Mayoruna tribe is feverishly surreal. One's own hold on reality as a theatergoer begins to loosen as his mind unspools. Is disorientation the theatrical goal?
I want people to immediately know how the piece is done and yet for them to experience something. Not just to follow the story but also to go through something, an event which requires, necessarily, participation on the part of the observer. What I hope happens is that they begin to see things that are not there. At first what they're looking at, the back wall of the stage, is pretty prosaic. But gradually through the process of what they're hearing, through the secrets of words, the story and the different situations, they start to build out this picture. They experience me becoming Loren, but I want to be so convincing that when I come back as myself at the end, when they hear my voice and not Loren's, they experience a shock because they see him rather than me.
In your warm-up with the audience you made a joke about that Mike Pence wasn't expected at the performance. Has "The Encounter" changed since the election?
Yes, hugely. The audience changes it. On the night after the election about 200 people who bought tickets didn't turn up. They were so depressed. There was an audible sense of mourning in the theater. And I found inevitably a very great sense that people are still absolutely involved in what has happened and concerned. Certain lines, like when I say, "some of us are friends," start to have a particular power. Because one of the dominant feelings about this election and indeed of Brexit is not just about what the consequences are in terms of government. But it's a very personal thing, this sense of division and unleashing of hate. This is a very remarkable thing: People can't quite believe how aggressive people are.
"The Encounter" is also about our relationship to nature. Do you think art can play a role in how we think about our environmental crisis?
I don't know. But I do know that art is not separated from society and life. I think the function of art in our society, which is so covered in layers of different fiction, is to be able to take a knife through it and to open it up. Very often people think of art as the add-on extra. It's like that famous American critic who called music mental cheesecake. Whereas I think it's at the heart of our society because it's the heart of the way that human beings think. Because we think metaphorically, because we think through a process of stories. And, therefore, one of art's imperatives is to be able to pierce through that fiction and go, "OK. This is a story but actually it shows us reality."
Were you influenced on this project by Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"?
I've read Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." But no — I mean it's there, but his "Heart of Darkness" is part of a kind of colonial myth. The real heart, the real heart of darkness, is somewhere within ourselves.
It's more metaphysical?
We've grown up with a very Greek idea of the world, which is extremely dualistic — when you say yes and no, black and white, it begins and it ends. And one of the remarkable things I found when I was in the Amazon is when I asked different tribes where they thought consciousness was in their bodies, they didn't like us put their hands on their faces or heads but rather pointed at the forest. I questioned my translator but then I thought how incredibly stupid I am because what is inside of us is alive and out there is life. So what is out is also within. There isn't this separation between outer and inner reality.
In addition to constructing these innovative theater pieces and directing operas by Mozart and Stravinsky, you also do a lot of screen acting ("Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation," "The Theory of Everything," a good deal of British television). Do you see any connection between these realms?
Working on film has brought me to the realization that I have to be very in touch with the reality of who I'm playing. You have to be very accurate. The camera will see what you're thinking, and if it's artificial it will expose it very quickly. I like that kind of precision and detail and find it very helpful in combination with the language of theater. I like the idea that suddenly something is hyper-hyper-hyper-realistic. In "The Encounter" I'm working with this very sensitive microphone, so there is a quality that feels filmic.
You'll be debuting your adaptation of Robert Evans' Hollywood memoir, "The Kid Stays in the Picture," at London's Royal Court before heading to Beverly Hills to do "The Encounter" at the Wallis. Is adaptation how you normally begin?
I've done a lot of them. I love working with words and I love text — that's my upbringing. I studied literature at university and by the time when I left university I had already directed or acted in at least 25 Shakespeares. That's sort of my seedbed.
Follow me @charlesmcnulty