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Hearts on Fire
Published on Friday, 10 August 2012
5

5 stars

C venues - C nova (venue website)
Theatre
2-27 Aug, 4:50pm-5:45pm, 7:50pm-8:45pm
Reviewed by Lynsey Martenstyn

 Recommended for age 12+ only.

What would you abandon in favour of success? A good night’s sleep? 72 hours without food? Your loved ones? There is a fine line between desire and obsession, which motivational speaker James Arthur Ray crosses in this disturbingly powerful production, based on a true story from 2010.

James Ray is a high-profile motivational speaker and author of a New York Times best-selling New Age book, Harmonic Wealth. Ray conducted seminars, one of which was a New Age ‘Spiritual Warrior’ retreat in the Arizonan desert, featuring a ‘sweat lodge’ (a ceremonial outdoor sauna, loosely based on those traditionally utilised by Native Americans). Three healthy people died whilst he watched, ultimately leading to his conviction and imprisonment on charges of negligent homicide. Hearts on Fire explores how this situation came about, and displays the complex character of James Ray and of the three people who died.

The story follows Ray and victims, Kirby Brown and James Shore, before the trip, during and after the incident. Opening in the middle of one of James’ motivational speeches, the audience are transported straight to the desert, to the aftermath of the tragedy.

James Ray’s character dominates this performance. Often in scenes where Ray does not feature, he sits silently, upright within the audience – his eyes lightly closed, face poised. This technique undoubtedly diffuses the unsettling atmosphere of retreat to the audience. He launches back onto the stage without warning, repeating parts of his ‘Spiritual Warrior’ speech, his eyes piercing into audience members.

Nigel Barber, who plays James Ray, is impressive. He captures a chillingly believable interpretation of Ray, defined by charismatic speech-giving, a manipulative mindset, and greed. The result is terrifying, allowing the audience to fully comprehend why the victims fell for Ray’s power.

The production is set within a sweat lodge in the desert; sand is strewn on the floor, and the audience sits around the edges of the lodge, watching the characters slowly ebb away. Although the sweat lodge is only in use at the end of the play, the staging is effectively atmospheric and provides a stark reminder of the characters’ impending deaths.

My one major complaint about this show is how it categorises itself. Hearts on Fire is not an interactive show; it describes itself as “immersive”, a subtle distinction which may well confuse the audience. Such a moment occurred in the performance I saw: Ray asked for volunteers whilst staring intently at the audience, a member of the audience duly volunteered, and actor Barber was unable to take this anywhere, as it was not part of the script. The production is effective enough that it does not need to incorporate interactive elements, but in that case, the dividing line with the audience should be more clearly drawn.

Hearts on Fire is an example of verbatim theatre gone right. Audiences are transported to the events leading up to the three deaths – and into James Ray’s character, which the play argues is a dark and vindictive one. Nigel Barber undoubtedly steals the show. Believable, powerful and terrifying, Hearts on Fire will leave thoughts on your mind that will be hard to mask.

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