‘Good luck on your journey!’ beams a girl at the entrance of this unique Fringe show. Behind the curtain is a domed tent in the Arizona desert, with a single row of simple seating lining its edges, covered with rugs. The walls are made up of a patchwork of multi-coloured cloths and the central space is covered with sand. This atmospheric crucible provides quite an experience.
Hearts On Fire tells the true story of motivational speaker James Arthur Ray; during one of his retreats in 2009 (for which all attendees paid $10,000) three of the ‘spiritual warriors’ died in his super-heated sweat lodge as they attempted to transform their lives. Ray did nothing to stop their deaths and left Arizona immediately. The play asks how and why this took place through scenes involving the ‘spiritual warriors’ and Ray’s ominous minions. The brilliant Nigel Barber as Ray speaks with a passionate, glazed-eyed delusion whose effects are frightening to behold; those attending the retreat are manipulated into fasting for thirty-six hours, sleepless, as they perform a ‘vision quest’. Ray is a capricious and childish man who craves change in everything. His shamanic rants are interspersed with rebukes against his confused followers, who seem completely unable to please him or follow his bogus philosophy.
The scenes set within the hut are where the play is at its most effective, because here the audience feels like another member of the cast, joining in the cheers for a girl liberating herself by cutting her hair off or being scrutinised by Ray as he makes his spittle-flecked diatribes. The final scene in which the audience sits in on the sweat lodge ceremony itself is almost iconic: it genuinely feels like the room is getting hotter and hotter as Ray pours water on hot rocks and spouts evangelical nonsense.
The space is used well, but the small central stage means that actors block off the audience’s views from time to time, although they remain mobile enough never to obscure the stage for too long. In fact, this even helps to enhance the cloying realism of certain scenes. The actors other than Ray don’t get much of a chance to shine and their characterisation feels slightly rushed, but any more than an hour long and this show’s captivating spell might be broken. As it is, this is a truly immersive experience which leaves the audience dumbstruck, replaying memories in an attempt to process exactly what they’ve just witnessed.