Simon McBurney: British theatrical alchemist ready to dazzle Broadway

His hallucinogenic new show takes the audience up the Amazon and to the centre of their own consciousnesses the latest work from an auteur who has constantly redefined theatre

Broadway has seen many things, but nothing entirely like this. From Tuesday evening for the next three months, 804 people a night will file into the John Golden theatre on West 45th Street, take their places and quietly slip on the pair of headphones waiting on their seats. The stage will be almost bare a plastic table, a few microphones and bottles of water, and an altogether stranger object, a dummy of a human head mounted on a mic stand. After a few minutes, a man wearing work clothes and a cap will appear and begin whispering into the dummy heads ears. Hello, Dolly! it isnt.

Described another way, The Encounter, as the show is billed, sounds significantly more thrilling a journey into the dark heart of the Amazon basin featuring mind-bending substances, disturbing anthropological experiences and a glimpse of what might be the dawn of time. Sound is very much the point; you see almost nothing. Courtesy of those headphones and the high-tech wizardry of binaural audio which is reproduced across a disconcertingly lifelike 360-degree field The Encounter might be happening in your head. You are likely to wonder at some points if the whole thing is some kind of delusion.

David Annen in A Disappearing Number, about the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramujans pioneering work on theta functions and primes. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian
The man responsible for messing with 804 minds a night is the English theatre-maker Simon McBurney. Actor, director, writer and cofounder of the experimental Complicite troupe, McBurney has
a reputation as one of the most singular talents of his generation. By the standards of his earlier work, an immersive audio voyage into rainforest country seems almost conservative: this is a man who once made a show about the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramujans pioneering work on theta functions and primes, and masterminded a screening of Eisensteins Battleship Potemkin with live music by the Pet Shop Boys. The set designer Es Devlin, who has created live stage sets for Beyonc and Kanye West, among others, and collaborated with McBurney on his 2012 adaptation of Bulgakovs fantastical novel The Master and Margarita, admits its sometimes hard to keep up. Hes hopping around all over the place. Hes turned upside-down with curiosity: he loves this idea, he loves that music, he wants to share it. Its hard to know what hell do next.

Despite the hallucinatory nature of its narrative, the story behind The Encounter itself isnt in dispute. In 1994, McBurney was given a copy of Petru Popescus 1991 book Amazon Beaming by his fellow director Annie Castledine. The book is based on a real-life encounter between an American photographer, Loren McIntyre, and an Amazonian tribe called the Matss or Mayoruna. Elusive and little studied by anthropologists, the Mayoruna are known as the cat people for their practice of inserting thin wooden spikes into their noses in imitation of jaguars; adding to the mystery, the tribal chief seems to have been able to communicate with McIntyre telepathically. The photographer related these facts to the rescuer who found him six weeks later floating in a canoe, starving and half-naked; the other tales he told were even more unfathomable.

Cesar Sarachu, Tim McMullan, Clive Mendus and Paul Rhys in The Master and Margarita by Complicite/Simon McBurney. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

According to McBurneys long-term producer Judith Dimant, it took the director the best part of two decades to work out how to render Amazon Beaming theatrically. When hes making work, he often does it very slowly; it can be very painful. He read the book, knew it interested him, but it took us a while to work it out. He first wanted to do it as a piece for 20 people wearing headphones, but by the time we finished, it was 600. She laughs. I still cant quite believe hes taking it to Broadway.

Toni Racklin, head of theatre at the Barbican arts centre in London, who co-produced The Encounter, says even she is often taken aback by McBurneys imagination. Who would have thought that a show about maths would work? Or that you could do an adaptation of The Master and Margarita? Whats fascinating is Simons ability to turn a book or an idea into something extraordinarily theatrical. He works very closely with amazing scientists and mathematicians, he travels and does his research, but all its in his head. What comes out is very deep and meaningful.

Many have traced these polymathic tendencies back to McBurneys childhood. Born in Cambridge in 1957 to the hugely respected American archeologist Charles McBurney, who taught at the university, and his wife Anne, a secretary, McBurney grew up in a highly intellectual and creative environment. Anne in particular was keen to nurture her childrens creative tendencies, and Simons older brother Gerard became a composer. Simon stayed in Cambridge to study, graduating in English literature from the universitys oldest college, Peterhouse, in 1980, before taking an unexpected leap across the Channel to Paris, in order to join the Jacques Lecoq school.

Ambur Braid and Lucy Crowe in McBurneys production of The Magic Flute. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Lecoq, with is emphasis on physical theatre, mime and mask work, was enormously influential as McBurneys style developed, suggests director Ian Rickson. The pair worked together on a 2009 staging of Becketts Endgame, which McBurney was originally scheduled to direct, but true to multitasking form ended up starring in, alongside Mark Rylance. If theres a way of labelling McBurney, Rickson suggests, its with a word sometimes sneered at in Britain and America auteur. Its very different tradition, the European one. You devise things collaboratively, you work through play: theres a lot of openness. In Britain, we tend to think the playwright is the creative artist and the directors job is to serve the text. Simon approaches it completely differently.

In 1983, McBurney came together with fellow theatre-makers Marcello Magni and Annabel Arden to found a company originally called Thtre de Complicit. As well as paying homage to their French roots, the name hinted at the collaborative, semi-illicit nature of the work they wanted to make. (These days the company is simply known as Complicite, pronounced like the English word complicity.)

Early shows celebrated that rough-edges aesthetic, notably a four-handed skit on the English seaside called Put It on Your Head, which McBurney described as part idiocy, part pantomime, part commedia dellarte. In 1985 they won to many peoples surprise the Edinburgh fringes Perrier award, more usually awarded to standup comedians. But over the years Complicite shows have become highly stylised pieces of performance art, using cutting-edge technology like projected video and digital animation long before they became de rigueur. The means are hugely complex technically, even if the story they relate is simple. Paradoxically, that simplicity gives Complicite shows their rich interpretative texture.

A scene from Mnemonic, a meditation on the act of memory. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Devlin remembers being in the audience for 1999s Mnemonic, a meditation on the act of memory that combined hi-tech sound design, music, lighting, video and projection to mesmerising effect. Even so, she recalls, the show commenced with a centuries-old trick a disappearing gag. On our chairs were a blindfold and a leaf. Simon came out on stage, looking like a dishevelled stand-up comedian, and told us to put the blindfold on, then pick up the leaf and feel its veins; the idea was to think about genealogy and family trees. And then when we removed them of course the set had changed to something completely different, and even though hed carried on talking all that time, Simon was suddenly nowhere to be seen. It was so simple, but stunning.

Everyone I talk to emphasises McBurneys collaborative approach, a Tiggerish enthusiasm to get everyone involved in the process of developing a show. Says Rickson: Hell listen to a stage manager, to an actor, to a fellow director, a musician. It all goes into the melting pot.

This might not always be strategic, Dimant concedes: If hes directing something, sometimes he complains that everyone seems to think he knows what hes doing, and he doesnt. He claims to be making it up as he goes along. Does that sometimes make for difficulties? There is a diplomatic pause. He tends to leave things to the last minute, until he really has to decide something; he likes going up to the wire. Not everyone can handle that.

The cast of Rev, with McBurney on the right. Photograph: BBC

Despite the high-minded rigour of his own work, McBurney isnt allergic to pop culture. In addition to his appearances on stage, he has lent his idiosyncratic screen presence somewhere between whimsical professor and deviant arch-villain to projects as varied as the easygoing BBC sitcom Rev (where he was effortlessly sardonic as a careerist bishop) and the 2011 film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Not many Lecoq-trained experimental theatre-makers have made cameos in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. McBurney has.

The fees no doubt help, but he gives every impression of relishing these gigs, says Dimant. Straight after doing a first run of The Encounter, Simon disappeared off to film [horror movie] The Conjuring 2. He enjoys just doing the acting, not having to think about anything but that. He kept sending us these pictures of himself wearing a moustache. He was having a whale of a time.

In 2007, he bumped into the concert pianist Cassie Yukawa (the wisest, most humane person I know, says Devlin) in the street after a show; the two got married and now have three children. Although McBurney has a strong vein of nomadic restlessness numerous people testify that trying to get hold of him when you really need him, let alone pin down which continent hes on, is a challenge many people agree that having a home life has added much-needed stability to his life. In 2012, interviewed for BBC Radio 4s Desert Island Discs, he said if he had to be cast away for ever, he would want to bring along a pillow imbued with the smell of my family. His oldest daughter, Noma, even makes it into The Encounter, when we hear her attempts to interrupt McBurneys reading of Amazon Beaming. Over time, the bedtime story he reads her becomes braided with the infinitely stranger events of the rainforest.

Close encounters of the weird kind: McBurney in The Encounter. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

For McBurney, everything seems to be material, or at least contain the possibility of becoming material; and as time has passed, his work has become more personal. The Encounter is very much about the state of world, what the shape of the future will be, environmentalism, and I think thats very informed by his children, says Dimant. Devlin agrees: Theres nothing about his life that doesnt fit to the work hes doing. Its all connected.

Which raises the question: what on earth does McBurney do when hes not working? Racklin praises his cooking. Music is yet another obsession, as anyone who listened to the marvellously esoteric playlist he brought along to the BBCs Desert Island Discs Gil Scot-Heron to Schnittke, Frank Zappa to Shostakovich can testify. There is a consensus that, though often so distractedly busy he forgets where he is, he is extremely kind and civil.

Somewhat in desperation, I ask Dimant to identify some flaws. Oh, the diary, she says with barely a breath. Thats a total nightmare. If I really want him to go to something, I have to come along with him. Its basically the only way to guarantee it. He says yes to everything, so I have to spend quite a lot of my time tactfully getting him out of stuff, because hes in completely the wrong country or whatever.

What seems clear is that, nearing 60, McBurney shows no sign of relaxing the pace in fact, if anything, he might be accelerating. In 2010, he directed an opera for the first time, Mozarts The Magic Flute, and there is also the prospect of a new Complicite show, shortly to be announced. I try my best to get Racklin to spill the beans on the latter, but the only thing shes prepared to give away is that his follow-up to The Encounter will be just as disconcerting. I think youll be surprised, she says. With Simon, its always a surprise.

  • The Encounter runs 20 September 2016 to 8 January 2017 at the John Golden theatre, New York

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