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Festival Reviews: 887 & The Encounter

Michael Cox reviews two excellent productions, part of this year's Edinburgh International Festival.

The Edinburgh International Festival seems to have pulled off a few impressive artistic coups this year, two of which can be found at the Edinburgh International Convention Centre.

First up, 887 (****), Robert Lepage’s theatrical mediation on memory. Juxtaposing the act of remembering his childhood with the difficulty he had in learning the rousing poem Speak White, the production uses a literal memory palace—a large-scale model of the building Lepage spent his childhood living in, complete with projections, figures, images and props—to tell his personal story.

The artistry behind the production is impressive. Lepage is an excellent theatrical presence: engaging, cheeky and easy to feel empathy with. The set pieces are all fun to watch come to life: a mini car that drives past, windows that show people in their homes, a diner complete with neon signs. Lepage rightfully brings out the nine technicians who help in the manipulation of the set for the curtain call at the end—their shy bows are well earned.

And it is all easy to marvel at. However, with a patchwork approach to personal stories and anecdotes, there might be irony in the fact it is quite difficult to recall everything once the production finishes. But this doesn’t really matter, because what does linger is the impressive impression Lepage makes in telling his story and the playful design he uses to convey it.

A good magician can delight with a trick; a master can show an audience how a trick is done yet still manage to dazzle when completing the trick a second time. Simon McBurney is an excellent performer, and his phenomenal new production The Encounter (*****) is a masterclass in storytelling and theatrical artistry.

McBurney begins by giving demonstrations on the power of sound design. The audience are given headphones to wear, and his induction to the art that comes with using soundscapes for theatrical purpose is playful and frequently funny. His use of effects and recordings are clever and a pleasure to listen to, a fun prelude to what’s to come.

However, once he begins telling the main story—that of photographer Loren McIntyre and his journey into the Amazon—the production fractures into multiple threads, combining McIntyre’s real life encounter with a native tribe and McBurney’s attempt to use storytelling to get his daughter to sleep.

McBurney is alone on stage with an impressive layout of sound equipment, microphones and a small collection of props, and yet the stories he manages to tell are rich in emotion, character and plot. It is easy to get wrapped into the entire production, letting everything—the sound of McBurney’s voice and the large cast of characters (some recorded, others impressively voiced by McBurney live)—wash over you while gapping at every aspect of the production.

Haunting and beautiful, The Encounter is theatre at its finest: an engrossing story well told with a brilliant use of theatricality. It may not be perfect, but it is perfectly done.

887 and The Encounter are part of the Edinburgh International Festival 2015, and both perform at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre until August 23, 2015. Check EIF website for dates and times.

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