National Theatre (venue)
13 November 2017 (released)
17 November 2017
Ivan Van Hove’s eagerly anticipated production of Network is a dazzling display of light and sound with American star, Bryan Cranston (of Breaking Bad) at it’s heart. At last the use of film in theatre, which has been a la mode for the last decade, has reached a level of sophistication where it really adds to the theatrical experience – there are no half measures in this giant National Theatre production with technicians occupying the same space as performers. Charged with an irrepressible energy for the entire interval-less two hours, it feels is some ways like the work of a magician.
Network is a new adaptation by Billy Elliot writer, Lee Hall, based on Paddy Chayefsky's satirical 1976 film. It follows the break-down of News Anchor Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston), whose on-air rants against society see a spike in News ratings and general madness ensue amongst the staff and network corporation. His collapse turns out to be immensely useful for the network and the Messiah complex he clearly harbours finds it’s home as his rants are eventually controlled by the head of the corporation (Richard Cordery).
Belgian director, Van Hove caused a lot of excitement with his production of Hedda Gabler last year and has really become a star himself in theatre circles, but the big draw was always going to be Bryan Cranston, making his English Theatrical debut. There’s no doubt Cranston is perfectly cast and suited to this man on the edge, in a productions that blends film and theatre so supremely. The visual intimacy we are used to on film almost seamlessly combines with the immediate physicality of theatre and even in the huge space of the Lyttelton we don’t miss a moment. At times the volume and action can feel overwhelming, with a belting sound-track constant movement. But this is clearly the point as we are bombarded with sparkling entertainment, including a working kitchen with dinner being served to on stage audience and the cast watching from a glass box as if for a continuous live New Broadcast.
Michelle Dockery and Douglas Henshall further bolster their star credentials and bring entirely convincing psychological realism to their parts. Dockery’s Diane could have been a tiresome cypher of a work obsessed ‘ice queen’ but she manages to make the part very funny, describing her ‘masculine’ approach to sex and revealing a total inability to empathise with the dribbling mid-life crisis of her lover. One of the un-missable scenes between Diane and Max starts with live film footage of them chatting from the river outside the National, follows them walking towards the stage door and ends up with the couple having sex at the on stage restaurant, fully dressed, while she talks shop. The many moments of humour are genuinely funny such as Cranston hanging onto his news desk as the production team try and drag him off air, Tunji Kasim as Frank Hackett’s death cry, ‘Now I’m a man without a corporation!’
Aside from the characterisation and the technical fireworks, what’s it all about? I briefly wondered why we should be interested in a play about the power of television when it’s not far enough away to be a metaphor and there is the internet power to be concerned with now. But most people are pretty sick of watching new plays about social media itself, and most of the pre-occupations are pretty similar. Fake news, dumbing down of content, the commercialisation of information, the role of media in politics with the rapid spread of group messages it enables. Even the sensible audience at the Lyttleton were shouting ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!’ on cue.
Ivan Van Hove’s production is a dazzling spectacle with some huge, (if not new questions) and many stand out performances from the cast. No surprise then, that it’ll be hard to get your hands on any tickets.