‘I’m mad as hell, as I’m not going to take this anymore’ is the chant at the centre of Paddy Chayefsky’s classic film, Network. In a time of post-truth and outrage, Lee Hall’s adaptation for the National Theatre adds a present-day backdrop which makes the story all the more chilling.
Enter Howard Beale (Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston), a news anchorman who breaks down live on air, announcing his plan to kill himself on his television show in a week’s time. What follows is the tale of commercial corruption and opinion vs. fact as the network obsesses over the boost in ratings…
Over nearly two hours, the story unfolds in an immersive multimedia format that further adds a modern touch to the plot. A large screen towers on-stage and on a set that serves as a studio, newsroom and restaurant (from which lucky audience members can eat and view the show) all at once. Add that to moments of audience participation and scenes outside the theatre and Ivo van Hove’s immersive direction smashes the fourth wall, bringing us further into the dystopian world.
It’s an intensity compounded by Cranston’s performance, delivering powerful and thought-provoking monologues effortlessly. Naturally, such a portrayal of the main protagonist detracts from other sub-plots – in this case, the rather under-developed story of Head of News Max Schumacher (Primeval‘s Douglas Henshall) and Director of Programming Diana Christensen’s (Downton Abbey‘s Michelle Dockery) relationship. Although brilliantly acted by the pair, it’s overshadowed by a feeling of it all being a bit too cliché and – in amongst the more extreme parts of the play – feels out of place.
Yet, it’s a play which demands further thought after seeing it. With no interval, there isn’t enough thinking time to process it all until the final bow. At that point, one can consider Howard Beale’s words – including a powerful closing speech – and Max and Diana’s partnership in more depth. It’s the sign of three incredible individuals coming together. Hall’s writing mixes with van Hove’s production to create the perfect atmosphere for Cranston to take centre-stage, delivering a performance that is – in every meaning of the word – sensational.
Rating: 4 out 5 stars