David Burton’s play Furious Angels uses the words of others far too much to be satisfying, but the challenge it presents to the single actor who must play its five different parts is well met by Daniel Mulvihill at the Metro Arts production.
The play is set in a mental hospital in the 1930s, where its chief, Dr Aintel, is in danger of losing his dominance, and maybe even his job as new methods of treating the mentally ill overtake his old-fashioned ideas. A new machine is about to arrive, and Dizzy, a patient who can see all of history and space, ponders if it will change everything, or be a tool for “keeping everything the same, evermore”.
Lenore, a kind nurse, falls in love with a new patient, Will, who becomes Dizzy’s cellmate. She tries to help Will escape, but the insanely jealous Dr Aintel discovers the plot and imposes a terrible punishment on both Will and Lenore. Meanwhile a narrator explains the action to the audience.
The plot seems secondary to Burton’s ideas on life and sanity. This in itself doesn’t mean the play has to fail, but far too much of the play comes from elsewhere. Shakespeare is liberally quoted, including lines that were already used in the musical Hair, and near the end of the play Dizzy recites several verses of Poe’s The Raven. This seems like a fairly stale device, which obscures the author’s original insights.
To me the biggest problem with Furious Angels is that I don know what the author actually thinks, or wanted me to think about. Some of the ideas I think Burton might be provoking are “The insane are really the sane ones”, “We all have a dual nature” or “There is just as much evil in you as in a villain”. As someone who’s been hospitalised with severe depression several times I reject the first, and the other two seem unoriginal enough to not really justify an hour-long play.
Despite my criticism of the play itself, Daniel Mulvihill does a very good job working with difficult material. He plays all five parts so they are easy to tell apart, but without mere caricature. He has very little to help him; the stage is bare except for a chair, the only other prop is a letter and his plain white costume puts all the attention on his skills. For just over an hour it’s him alone on stage, and if the watchers find the play as unsatisfying as I do, then they may be sure they have at least seen an actor who has put all his heart into making it as good as it can be.