In late 2009 three people died during a spiritual retreat in the Arizona desert hosted by motivational speaker James Arthur Ray. Having paid up to $10,000 to attend the event, at which they fasted and slept unprotected in the desert at the command of their leader, the participants then entered a ceremonial sweat lodge where they were exposed to extreme temperatures which caused dehydration, burns and organ failure. After the deaths Ray immediately left the state and refused to speak to the authorities, later to be arrested, found guilty of three counts of negligent homicide and sentenced to two-years imprisonment.
It isn’t hard to see why Peculius Stage were attracted to interrogating a real world story that raises such uncomfortable questions about the nature of personal responsibility on the quest for enlightenment. Nor is it terribly surprising that Fringe audiences should wish to submit themselves to what was (misleadingly) billed as an immersive, sweat lodge installation. If Hearts on Fire leaves any lasting impression it is that mankind is unthinking, desperate and searching for fulfilment at any cost.
The audience sit around the walls of a patchwork tent, looking onto a central, sandy performance space. From it their slimy host, played by Nigel Barber, addresses his assembled flock, repeating a series of empty mantras – ‘what you think about you bring about’ – and betraying a misogyny and temper that turns his charisma sour.
While Barber has a chilling presence, his latest disciples are a stereotypical bunch. Adam Usden’s writing has to be blamed for such thinly painted characters – the hippy chick with unwashed hair, the shy middle-aged woman who finds her voice, the willfully oblivious assistant submitting to Ray’s advances – which the admirably focussed cast nevertheless uniformally fail to bring any depth or life to. Neither does the writing even attempt to examine the questions raised by the scenario these people find themselves in: why are they here in the first place, what are they searching for, who is James Arthur Ray in their eyes? The rebellious consumption of chocolate cake could have been developed into a revealing challenge to Ray’s authority, yet the incident and subsequent chastisement are superficially performed and ultimately Hearts on Fire strips humanity of its complexity in presenting Ray’s followers as unthinking automatons.
Vaguely cast as aspirational ‘Spiritual Warriors’, yet restricted in both agency and voice, the audience too are denied any opportunity to examine their own responses to Ray’s manipulation. The problem lies with Ali Boag’s direction, which fails to commit to its own intentions: the immersive space merely limits the scope of the cast’s movements, while the audience are practically invisible throughout. The atmospheric climax likewise falls short as in no perceptible way does this ‘sweat lodge’ heat up, either physically or theatrically; in such close proximity the cast’s writhing and moaning is as self-consciously artificial as the recorded hiss of water being poured on hot stone.
The blood may be boiling in my veins but that has sweet nothing to do with the temperature in the room after such an unforgivably crass exploration of humanity at its most vulnerable.