Review: Network (National Theatre)

Bryan Cranston stars as news anchor Howard Beale in Ivo van Hove’s production of the hit ’70s film

"I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore": the rallying cry made famous by Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film Network
was emblazoned on placards at women’s marches throughout the world earlier this year. And the refrain is back, as loud and as provocative as ever, onstage at the National Theatre. This time it's in Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of the movie, spoken by Bryan Cranston as the prophetic news anchor Howard Beale who urges his newly burgeoning TV audience to shout it from the rooftops.

Such is the film’s enduring relevance. Belgian director Ivo van Hove sticks with the original Oscar-winning film's '70s setting and yet still manages to underscore everything on stage with a sense of just how much this is a piece about now – and about us. The plot revolves around 'old man of the news' Beale, whose career as a news anchor is about to be cut short due to a slow decline in viewing figures of his regular slot.

During one of his final broadcasts, Beale announces he’s going to kill himself live on air and all hell breaks loose. But not in the way you might expect: the television executives – new, business-minded stooges, only recently in charge of the station – decide the ratings spike caused by Beale's revelation may be the entire network’s saving grace. Howard Beale stays, and the nation watches, enthralled, as he is allowed free rein on air to call bulls**t on the world, and finally tell the truth, convincing the masses to take action against injustice, against capitalism, against corporations and ultimately against the men who own the television channels. Is this a very public breakdown, or actually the work of a genius?

This slick, beautifully paced production is a non-stop, fluid roller coaster that segues easily between the worlds of news studio, restaurant (audience members chomp through a three course meal onstage as the action unfolds around them) and production room. Everything is onstage all at once, enhanced by huge screens that surround the action which offer second, third, fourth perspectives on everything that happens. When Howard Beale makes his declaration of suicide, we are watching it from the screen, we are watching him onstage and we also see how the producers – oblivious in their sound proofed glass box – initially don’t hear a word of it.

It’s an intense, riveting way of viewing that never allows the audience to turn off. So much happens on stage at the same time, your attention is constantly focused on the next thing. There are moment of immense beauty in Tal Yarden’s video design too, especially when he makes shots echo each other so we see five versions of Cranston’s confused, lost face, distorted and pixelated.

Cranston himself – and the rest of the excellent cast – is magnetic. There’s very little of his most famous TV role Walter White from Breaking Bad here. He entirely embodies the slightly wearied news man whose life begins and ends in the studio and who seems to strengthen visibly as he continues to spout his truths to a beguiled audience. It is a layered, subtle turn, which sits amid an entire ensemble of them. Michelle Dockery is a spiky, taut figure who holds her own as Diana Christensen, the young soulless TV exec. Douglas Henshall feels very real as Beale’s long-serving producer and friend, tormented by Christensen's inability to care deeply about anything but her work.

For all its smooth seamlessness, however, the whole set up of Network is a little distancing. Perhaps that’s the point, but it ultimately means this show is a piece that’s easy to admire but hard to really love. Still, Hall’s superb adaptation is one of the shining lights of the entire night. He manages to keep deftly and succinctly to the entire central thread throughout – that it is people who matter, not screens, not big business and not ratings. He makes sure every line lands, leading us through the madness to some semblance of hope at the piece’s end. Hell isn’t other people, says Network, other people are the only thing that will save us. If that’s not a message for today, then I don’t know what is.

Network runs at the National Theatre until 24 March.