Lyttelton, National Theatre
Book Tickets to Network
Starring Bryan Cranston. Directed by Ivo Van Hove. Script by Lee Hall. Three headlines that have led to this production selling out, though Friday Rush and Day Seats make some opportunities available. Adapted and based on the 1976 film written by Paddy Chayefsky, it is a savage satire on a fictional TV companies ratings, boosted when their chief news anchor, Howard Beale, is sacked and announces that he will kill himself live on screen. It is a prophetic vision of what happens next, when the Director of Programming, Diana Christiansen, taps the power of exploiting Beale’s actions to take the number one spot in the ratings. Hall has hindsight, of course, but the production is a chilling and entertaining examination of media manipulation and our compliance in it.
The set creates the TV studio; to the audience left is the control room, to the right, strangely, a live restaurant, Foodwork, where audience members are fed a three course meal during the show. We see everything, either live or through the screens; camera’s catching the action and projecting it around the set. It is the most successful fusion of live and recorded elements that I have ever seen. It plays into our ease with multi-media visions, with much to snag our notoriously short attention span. The sound of the diners eating, the commercials and TV shows from the 1970s, the excellent music score, all vie for our attention as the drama unfolds. Thankfully, the faultless cast make for a gripping evening.
Bryan Cranston is magnificent as Howard Beale, having the ability to act directly to the camera as well as to open out his performance to the huge auditorium, gradually breaking down the barrier between actor and audience- some lucky audience members even get to touch celebrity. He is warm, engaging, terrifying as Beale, the famous, “I’m mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” speech has touches of King Lear’s descent about it. As his best friend and Head of News, Douglas Henshall is excellent, trying to do what’s best for Howard, yet losing his moral compass in his affair with Diana, played with ice cool perfection by Michelle Dockery, who has neither heart or soul unless it’s to do with ratings.
In many ways the “I’m mad as Hell” speech is the climax of the show, and the second hour of the two hour interval less play begins to sag slightly. When we should be hurtling towards Beale’s inevitable conclusion, (there’s only one way he can get out the Big News Brother Hell once his ratings fall), the subplot involving Max and Diana becomes too much of a focus. It’s hard to care about two heartless individuals, especially as Max’s wronged wife is an underwritten part. And I remain not totally convinced by the restaurant, especially when so few scenes occur in it, and especially when Dockery and Henshall begin a scene outside the National, (therefore dissolving the New York location), and they walk onto set and into the restaurant, this felt too tricksy.
Yet there is much to admire in this sleek, seamless fusion of media that demonstrates how complicit we are in our manipulation. The shadow of Trump, whether implicitly or explicitly, is cast deep over the show, a reality TV star can become POTUS. If we are angry as Hell, why aren’t we doing more to challenge it? Until Fiona Bruce rips up her script and launches into an anti-Brexit rant, this is the nearest we’re going to get to an examination of Fake news and the puppet masters. Campaign for a ticket.
Photos of Network are by Jan Versweyveld.