Review: Network, National Theatre

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore”

 With Network, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film, Ivo van Hove re-asserts his place as one of the premier theatremakers working, anywhere. A satire that managed to predict just how powerful a tool populist anger can be when leveraged effectively, it is transformed into the immersive bustle of a TV studio, that of UBS Evening News where old hack Howard Beale – a transcendent performance by Bryan Cranston – has been handed his notice. Though initially appearing to accept it with good grace, he causes an almighty media stir when he declares, on air, that he’s going to kill himself, triggering a most unlikely rebirth as a truth-spilling ‘prophet’.

And as ever, van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld challenge our notions of theatrical space and how it is used. An onstage restaurant puts (some) audience members right in the thick of the action, the fourth wall gets well and truly shattered, and the use of live video and big screens forces us into the role of active observers – as Beale goes live on air, do you watch Cranston himself, do you watch him onscreen, do you watch the team observing him from the producers’ box…the multiplicity of perspectives reminds us how easy it is to manipulate media, how there can always be other sides to the story.

The less charitably minded might point to recycled devices and say ‘same old bag of tricks’ but I prefer to think of it as the establishment of a house style, of a theatrical language that many try to imitate but few ever succeed. And in any case, there are clever spins here, constantly springing surprise elements – i.e. just who the initial countdown is for, the coup de théâtre enabled by the camera filming from above, and who could ever get bored of the seamlessness with which Tal Yarden’s video design tracks scenes from outside right onto the Lyttelton stage.

And for all the creative ingenuity at work, there’s thrillingly committed acting at Network’s foundation. Michelle Dockery’s producer Diana is ferociously ambitious as she suggests just how far reality TV will push the boundaries of established decency, Richard Cordery’s Jensen chills as the embodiment of corporate management, by contrast Douglas Henshall finds compassionate depth in Max and there’s essential work too from Caroline Faber as his wife Louise, even in the limited stage time she gets.

As the total focus of the story though – a particular triumph in Hall’s selective editing of his adaptation – Cranston’s Beale is a titanic achievement, his every utterance and movement utterly unmissable as circumstance prevails to postpone his mental breakdown but not entirely thwart it. Even as this late career renaissance kicks in, we never lose the sense of a man teetering on the edge, knowing his fate is inevitable even as he taps into a national mood that threatens to upend the system, drain the swamp even.

But it is the melding of all these elements into a hugely satisfying whole that makes Network sing, particularly when van Hove is delivering iconic images that sear themselves into the mind. The visual overload of the ‘mad as hell’ scene going viral, Beale’s stark silhouette subservient to the messianic delivery of Jensen’s eerily prescient speech about the ramifications of untrammeled globalisation, the hall of mirrors effect that Yarden deploys on Cranston’s face at a crucial moment. In so many ways, this is theatre at its most exciting.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Jan Versweyveld
Booking until 24th March.
Network is sold-out however tickets are still available through Day Seats and Friday Rush 





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