“Network” at the National Theatre

Bryan Cranston’s funny, moving and truly magnetic star turn as a television news anchor who goes mad is a soaring success. And there are strong performances from Douglas Henshall and Michelle Dockery as TV executives fighting to profit from or protect Beale, while they start a romantic affair. A large supporting cast are on hand to broadcast Beale’s breakdown and subsequent career as a TV prophet who channels “popular rage”. As the ratings rocket, the chaos of live TV is innovatively portrayed. And yet director Ivo van Hove’s hit show has left me a little baffled.

With camera operators joining the performers, this show is a technical marvel. Nearly all the action is filmed live, including a scene on the Southbank, and relayed to a giant screen. Most people have seen something like it before… but not on this scale. Often confusing (although occasionally the delay in feedback is used to great effect), for most of the time it’s an exciting, if overwhelming, technique. Action occurs at the extremes of the stage, so no matter where you sit you will struggle at times. And there’s some toe-curling audience participation, which never works at the National Theatre. Most memorably there’s a restaurant on stage – a real one. So people are having a whole meal during the show, which proves distracting enough to watch, let alone partake in. Apart from a lame pun on the idea of TV dinners, allowing this pop-up is a real puzzle.

There’s a lot going on, and if you cried gimmick it would be hard to argue against you. Nonetheless Van Hove’s iron grip on events makes the show plough on with an arresting energy. The problem is a slim play. Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s film is too conservative, pinning the play in its 1970s moment, when we all know how much the media has moved on. A campaign recruiting the public to send in videos of themselves repeating Beale’s “I am mad as hell” mantra sticks out painfully. Even worse, several speeches by Beale and a godlike owner of the company show the central ideas in the piece as dated, nonsensical, conspiracy theories. Moments clearly meant to be profound end up sounding silly. No amount of fancy tricks can hide a flaw like that.

Until 24 March 2018


Photos by Jan Versweyveld