Simon McBurney is one of European theatre’s most maverick, yet stimulating and eclectic actors and theatrical creators. For more than 30 years he has led Complicite, the theatre company he co-founded with Annabel Arden, Fiona Gordon and Marcello Magni in 1983, at venues that have included London’s National Theatre and the Barbican Centre and taken to New York and to global festivals. He has also become known for his now regular appearances in mainstream films, including Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (voicing the house elf Kreacher), The Theory of Everything and Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, as well as the U.K. television shows The Vicar of Dibley and Rev.
“Doing films like Mission Impossible may give you the illusion that I’m paid vast sums of money, but I’m not, and I have three children, so unless I create a hit show on Broadway, I have to work really hard,” he explains patiently. But theatre is also what he does most, and it preoccupies him fully: “All my life, I can’t remember a year when I didn’t make theatre. I was always acting at school, so I never made a decision to go into theatre—I always knew that I could do it, and that it was like breathing for me. But I’ve also spent my whole life being disreputable, and I’m still considered an outsider.”
Yet New York is a town where he finds he can actually feel at home. “It’s amazing how New York will embrace and welcome you, much more than London does in reverse. It has an extraordinary generosity of spirit. … I hope that when this piece goes there it will touch people in multiple ways, in that the questions it asks about who we are and how we see the world seem to be things that are at the very apex of where we are now. America is on the cusp of choosing a new narrative for itself that could change things considerably.”
The Encounter premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 2015 and has since been seen in London and throughout Europe. It follows the true story of an explorer’s journey to a remote tribe in Brazil—and puts himself and the audience in a direct relationship with him as he tells it, since the entire soundscape of the show is relayed on personal headphones that each member of the audience is given. “What I wanted was for the experience to be physically palpable. The audience isn’t invited to sit back and watch what happens to this man when he journeys to Brazil, but to experience it for themselves, by getting as close to it as possible. You’re paradoxically aware of sitting amongst a group of people, yet at the same time it feels like it is really for you.”
And now he is looking forward to bringing it to Broadway audiences at the Golden. “I think the appeal of working on Broadway and in the West End is that you’re reaching the widest possible audience—it’s not an elite audience. And they are prepared to come to something without preconceptions. There is something in America [that] is constantly open to the new—it is constantly prepared to take risks. In the theatre, people like to know what they’re going to get, but on the other hand, in lots of ways, when they go to a show, they also want to be surprised. Coming to this piece they will be entertained, but they will also be surprised!”
Just as many were by Hamilton, he suggests, and as they were by his two previous Broadway outings as director: Ionesco’s The Chairs in 1998, for which he received a Tony nomination for Best Director, and of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons in 2008.
“The Chairs is a work of surrealism in which you see these two people disintegrating in front of your eyes, but Broadway audiences absolutely loved it and got it completely!”
Now they will be watching him reconstructing a life in front of their eyes—and ears—and passing on a message about our shared humanity with remarkable humility, as well. “The head man of the people I went to see in Brazil when I was researching this show said to me, ‘When you go back to your people, the only thing I’d like is that you tell them that we exist.’ In saying that others exist, you create a connection between people—which is why I also believe in theatre, because that’s what it does, too.”
Mark Shenton is London correspondent for Playbill.com and associate editor and joint lead critic for The Stage in the United Kingdom. Follow him at @ShentonStage.