Having DJ-ed early on in my music-loving career, then working in connection with the music industry for over two decades and now branching into the medium of radio, I can say that sound has always been an important part of my adult life. So it’s no surprise that of the extensive program at this year’s Perth International Arts Festival, the heavily aural-based production The Encounter stood out as a must-see.
The show’s synopsis looked interesting: about a journey by National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre who gets lost in a remote Amazon rainforest while searching for a certain Brazilian tribes-people, his story narrated by an English guy named Richard Katz through the use of spoken word, sound effects and occasional movement on stage.
The main selling point of the show is the ‘3D sound’ factor, where each audience member is equipped with a set of headphones to experience the audio in surround sound. The pair of phones linked to each seat look humble enough – a bit like those cheap ones you get when boarding an economy flight on Qantas, in fact. But, boy, do they deliver crisp, clear audio.
At first, the tactic works wonderfully well, with Katz arriving on stage to announce a “slight technical problem”, promising that the show would soon start. Soon enough, as he is filling in time, indeed talking about the illusion of time and space, the audience eventually realises that the show had started as soon as he set foot on stage, only adding to Katz’s dialogue about the real versus the unreal.
The sound production is of such high quality that when Katz whispers into the ‘ear’ of a dummy-head on stage, you sense as though he is leering over your shoulder, whispering to you directly. There is also the clever use of heat pads on each headset which warm up when Katz gives a scripted cue to engineers at the back of the room – all four of them busy in the dark, twiddling knobs like ardent NASA engineers, pushing echo pedals to help build textured layers of audio bliss.
But bliss eventually turns to discomfort when, one hour into the show, Katz is still narrating the tale of a photographer lost deep in the Amazon, the same tricks of echoing and layering being utilised (their novelty factor lost by now), and nothing fantastically or drastically altered in the narrative.
Not only did it start to sound same-ol’, same-ol’ to this particular patron, but I began to feel somewhat claustrophobic, aching to break away with a trip to the bar or to the toilet (not even to pee, only to stretch my legs and maybe sense some real noise outside). But even though everybody else in the theatre was wearing headphones, I felt uncomfortable getting up to take a break from this (almost) two-hour-long subjugation to contrived sonics.
When I did finally get up the courage to leave my seat and step outside, I was told there was a lockout policy and that I couldn’t go back in to see the end of the show. So who knows how this thing ended. Did Katz finally flash some images up on the big screen behind him so as to add colour to a story that was beginning to sound too dull and grey? (To me, at least). Did the protagonist in the tale finally decide to escape the entrapment of the jungle just as I’d managed to escape the entrapment of someone else’s ardent performance art?
The Encounter has garnered a lot of praise from critics and public alike for its clever technique of immersing the audience into the heart of the story, per se. But to be honest, I’ve heard this kind of stuff before. Having been a fan of spoken word artist, Laurie Anderson, for a long time now, I can tell you, Laurie has not only been sharing stories about faraway tribes using clever audio trickery (indeed, she invented the device Katz uses to alter the sound of his voice to a deeper level), she manages to keep her audience interested by delivering a variety of shorter anecdotes in the one variety hour or so, not subject us to a two-hour plot in the same place with the same dude running around taking the same ‘pictures’ that I never got to see.
Perhaps those people fascinated by The Encounter have never heard of Laurie Anderson. Or Meredith Monk, William Burroughs, Henry Rollins, or any one of the brilliant storytellers who manage (or ‘managed’ in Burroughs case) to bridge eco commentary with critique of our contemporary age ever-so brilliantly.
My suggestion? Save the $85 that The Encounter would cost you and buy four CDs of the aforementioned artists instead. At least then you can take your headphones off whenever you like to get up and take a break. Antonino Tati
‘The Encounter’ is on at His Majesty’s Theatre as part of the Perth International Arts Festival until Saturday 25th February, from 8pm nightly.
There is also a matinee on Wednesday 22nd February at 2pm. The show goes for two hours with no interval.