Cults, brainwashing and exploitation seem to go hand-in-glove. So it is that a young woman, Lisa – played convincingly by Hayley Worsley – a tried and true member of a sect with Eastern leanings, practising spiritualism and free love, finds herself in the hands of a deprogrammer, Mel (Tim Ferris) in Heretics.
Lisa agrees to attend a session just so that her mother will stop worrying. Little does she know she will be kept there under lock and key, against her will, until the work is done. Mel is hard core, a war veteran who took to drugs to dull the pain and then went through his own private hell. In fact, the impression we gain is that he is far from through it, although now his opiate of choice appears to be booze from a hip flask, while dishing the dirt to those who have gone off the rails, like Lisa. Talking of vulnerable, arguably the most pliable of the characters is Jerry (Luke George Styles), a security guard who seems relatively easy prey to women with designs.
He lost his last job because he was gullible and now Lisa is spinning him a tale of how he can reach nirvana by connecting with the 19 members of her sect. Suddenly, though, the tables are turned on the chief protagonist when a former cult member, Wendy (Hayley Brown), appears out of the blue. Lisa is at first delighted and tells her there will be no ramifications if Wendy chooses to return to the fold. But then Wendy drops a bombshell that leaves Lisa reeling.
The simple but attractive set, in which the action unfolds, is made up of a double bed, behind which sits a modern art painting, while to the right there is a chair and small writing table, with a rather dull painting on the wall. Intense and affecting, Heretics is like a jigsaw puzzle in which we – the audience – gradually piece together the narrative. The performances are strong, save for a couple of scenes in which yelling is called for. While loud, I felt it was overdone. In other words, I wasn’t convinced of its authenticity.
In fact, that is one of the strengths of the writing by American playwright Professor Richard Zinober and direction from Manoela Amaral, namely that for large tracts the play felt “real”. The ending is up to us to interpret … to a point. Suffice to say that an action that Lisa took in that locked room may have consequences.
I took away from all of this the following thoughts. The tighter the knot is tied, the harder it is to undo. It takes time and, more often than not, it is an uphill battle, but persistence and the right triggers can do the trick. Conversely, a charismatic appeal to the disaffected and the vulnerable can draw them in mighty quickly. Suffice to say, I was involved from the get go and so, too, will you. Heretics is playing at The Owl and Cat Theatre, 34 Swan Street, Richmond until 31 March 2017.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Int (Owl & Cat) – theatre review
- Asylum (Owl & Cat) – theatre review
- 25 and F***ed (Owl & Cat) – theatre review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television