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If you see one show: the heart of the arts festival

If you see only one show in the Auckland Arts Festival, says Simon Wilson, make it The Encounter. Its short run starts tonight.

Every arts festival has a special show. It bedazzles, but that’s not all. It jolts your senses and your sensibility, and has such a depth of theme and strength of creative expression that it sweeps up all the other shows with it into a triumphant affirmation. Of what? Of the compact art has with life. Which is not to please us but to trouble us. To shake us from complacency, to nudge and push and seduce and shock and otherwise confound us into a new way of looking at the world. A show that stands as a marker for what, right now in the world, art is and can do.

This year, that show is The Encounter, which opens tonight and runs only until Sunday.

Richard Katz in The Encounter. Photo Prudence Upton.

Strangely, it’s a one person show and a lot of it is pretty quiet. Both of those things underscore its richness.

Take a breath. An actor plays a character called “the performer”, who tells the story, written in the first person by a playwright, adapted from a non-fiction book by a novelist, about a photographer, who is kidnapped in the Amazon and has a life-changing experience he can understand only through the mediation of at least three different members of the tribe who took him. And most of what they say, for most of the time, makes no sense to him. Not just because of the language difficulties, which are many: the photographer is Portuguese (and the novelist Romanian) and only one of the Amazonians, whom he meets very late in the piece, speaks any English. It’s more that almost every concept underpinning the Amazonian world is alien to our protagonist.

So, questions of identity and questions of truth, filtered through eight levels of character, and there is also a ninth voice, that of the director organising all this – the great and supremely innovative Simon McBurney.

A recurring motif in the story is the voice of the performer’s daughter, recorded by him when he was working at home, learning his lines. Not the actor’s daughter, mind, but the character’s. It’s the fourth wall broken, in sound, to reveal another fourth wall that is also broken.

All of this rabbit-holey playing with identity and truth is certainly intriguing but it is also merely an echo of the vastly more complex, mysterious and dangerous encounters with different realities the photographer endures in the jungle. Mind altering? You just wait.

The stage is a large space with some random furniture and what seems like junk. It’s a workroom. There is also, right in the middle, a head, without eyes or mouth, on a stick.

This head is a “binaural microphone”: a mic that records in 3D. Everyone in the audience wears headphones, so for the entirety of the play you hear the action on stage as if you were standing where the binaural microphone is. You are the inscrutable head; the worlds of the play are all around you.

The performer stands downstage right and speaks, and you hear him from just in front of you to the right. A door opens and in comes the little girl, who cannot sleep and wants a story, and you hear the door, and her, just behind your left shoulder. You know you don’t need to look round and you tell yourself as much, but what you know doesn’t seem as real as what you experience.

Dull minds would render all this as gimmicks and tricks. But McBurney and his company Complicité are not dull; their work shines with wit, intelligence and disciplined creativity. As for the actor, Richard Katz, who has been involved from the start, he brings some extraordinary skills. The first he reveals is a precisely timed comic informality, very charming, very minor key. He’s got a story to tell about the jungle but he’s not that gung-ho Martin Sheen heading up the Mekong and he’s certainly no Colonel Kurtz lying in wait in the heart of something evil. And yet, it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal, a great struggle of darkness and illumination does await us.

Katz’s dry humour and warm-hearted precision are wonderfully suited to this tale, with its layers of “reality”, shifting timeframes and teeming multitude of jungle sensations. As a staged event the show could not be more complex, and yet while Katz as the photographer is almost always confused, not to mention sometimes terrified, about what is happening to him, Katz as the performer steers you unerringly, safely, through. You’re bombarded but never lost. It’s exhausting but also paced to keep you urgently in the moment. Simply at the level of the dramatic technicalities required to achieve these things, this play is a wonder.

Photo Prudence Upton.

But showing off their technical and storytelling virtuosity is not why they do it. The play is Trumpian, because everything important now is Trumpian, and because even though it was conceived well before Trump became that thing, its themes are right on the button. Identity, cultural value, questions of personal and tribal and planetary survival, and perhaps most of all the life-saving power of humility in the face of what we don’t know and can’t control.

I’ve seen it only once. It seems pretty clear to me there are many deeper layers awaiting a second visit. But whether you go just once or set up camp in the Aotea Centre, I can’t recommend it enough. We have arts festivals for lots of reasons, and I don’t want to denigrate any of them. Exposure to the cultural unknown, fertilising the great flowering of local talent, taking us to places that are strange and wonderful and outlandish and breathtakingly beautiful, and just giving a crowd a really good time, they’re all magic to me.

But this. One human, filtered through many, wrestling with the world and what it means to live in it, here and now. This is very special.

The Encounter plays six shows only in the Auckland Arts Festival at the Aotea Centre, March 15-19.

Simon Wilson saw The Encounter in Melbourne with assistance from the Auckland Arts Festival.

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