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The Encounter review (Sydney Opera House, Sydney Festival)

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Normally it would be considered impolite to close your eyes for too long at the theatre, but in Complicite’s one-man show The Encounter it could well be a sign that the audience is swept up in the narrative.

Once the audience members are seated, they’re invited to don the headphones provided, and experience a range of three-dimensional sounds created on stage.

At one moment the performer and guide for this unique audio experience, Richard Katz, is standing a metre or two behind you, then he’s whispering into your ear, then he seems to be blowing warm air directly into your ear. The effect is so realistic that, just for a moment, it feels as though your ear might be heating up, but before too long a mosquito starts buzzing around your head.

He creates all of these effects using a head-shaped microphone, which picks up sounds in all directions. It could easily be that it’s your head up there on stage with Katz.

Once we understand the ground rules, Katz begins the true story we’ve come to hear, of American photojournalist Loren McIntyre’s extraordinary and surreal encounter with the remote Amazonian Mayoruna tribe.

In 1969, McIntyre sets off on an expedition to find and photograph the tribe in the Brazilian rainforest, but very quickly finds himself lost. Soon, many of McIntyre’s perceptions start to blur and shift as he becomes part of a world not at all like his own, and comes to understand a few things about the Mayoruna people.

What unfolds from here is a story that evolves and questions the way we see our world and notions of time. At its core are questions about what cannot be undone.

The Encounter makes its way to Australia after critically acclaimed seasons all around Europe, in London and, most recently, on Broadway, where it closed just a few days before its Sydney premiere. It’s received rave reviews everywhere it’s traveled, so expectations are sky-high for its Australian tour.

The piece is directed by the co-founder of London-based company Complicite, Simon McBurney, who, up until the Australian leg of the tour, has also performed the piece. Australia gets Richard Katz, who has played the role as McBurney’s understudy on Broadway.

His performance is one of the most accomplished seen on Sydney stages in quite a while — leaping through this journey and completely transforming into McIntyre while assuredly taking care of all of the audio production on stage. It’s a performance that’s well and truly “run-in” by now, which isn’t often what critics get to see on opening nights.

Although Katz does the most you could expect of an actor, it does seem there’s some disconnect in not having McBurney play the role, knowing that it was his research, writing and theatrical experimentation that drives this production.

But the technical achievement of the production is absolutely astonishing, and it is quite unlike anything I’ve experienced before in terms of its technical detail and ambition.

Just as impressive is the writing of the play, which brings together all kinds of narrative threads (including one of our narrator researching this story and compiling the show), sources of sounds, and even interviews about the impact of this journey and the context within which we’re now hearing it.

The show never manages to have quite the political or emotional impact that it’s seeking, but as an innovative, mind-bending, and immersive sensory experience, it’s second to none.

The Encounter is at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until January 28. It then tours to Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide

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