PIAF 2017 – The Encounter (5 stars)

Review by Brandon Taylor

“This voice should sound in your right ear. If the voice is sounding in your left ear, please turn your headphones around.” The soothing voice lilts, over and over, into every ear packed into His Majesty’s Theatre. The first taste of The Encounter, it seems, is a hearing test. Administered through Sennheiser headsets – one per seat – as humble as they prove remarkably apt at enveloping the wearer in worlds he or she did not choose, nor expect, to explore.

The only item of note onstage is a mannequin head atop a tripod. This, it turns out, is a binaural microphone – that is, a head-shaped mic that transmits sound to each and every headset with an accuracy high enough to fool any listener’s brain into thinking that the head’s experiences are its own.

It is with this tool that solo performer Richard Katz hauls his audience back and forth between fiction and reality, past and present, theatre and Amazon rainforest. Masterfully directed by Simon McBurney and played with spine-tingling fervor by Katz, The Encounter takes its witnesses on a journey first taken by wayward National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre. A routine wilderness shoot in the Amazon turns into a tribal abduction and series of near-death experiences that the audience will not only hear, but nearly see, taste and touch.

The experience is very unlike a play in that it hinges on sound more than sight. There’s one man on stage, and he uses not much more than a stick and several water bottles to tell his story. But so unprecedented is the audio production, so excellent the voice acting, and so ingenious the use of set, that this performance is projected into the imagination with an immediacy far surpassing that of a distant stage. A water bottle sloshing next to the mannequin head becomes the Amazon River. A tapestry of taps and hoots is looped to become the sounds of the rainforest. Katz’s breath in your ear becomes the last gasp of a dying tribesman.

It is difficult to communicate just how effective this production is. The audience jumps in shock, sighs with relief, and huddles against each other from the onslaught of the wilderness. They chuckle at the sound of a child running about their feet. They emerge out the other side challenged with the deep seated struggles between self-concept and reality, freedom and security, nature and man. The play would be well-recommended to any audience, save those unready to explore a new frontier of theatre.

The Encounter played at His Majesty’s Theatre as part of Perth International Arts Festival 16th – 25th February 2017