“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!” That’s the line everyone remembers from Network – and Bryan Cranston absolutely kills it. His call to action will send shivers down your spine. He roves the stage speaking directly into the camera, a close-up of his craggy and sweaty face streamed to a huge screen at the back of the stage. He’s looking right at you and he demands your anger.
The Breaking Bad actor lets loose in the National Theatre’s stage adaptation of this 1976 Oscar-winning masterpiece. He stars as Howard Beale, a washed-up news reader for fictional US television network UBS who reacts to being fired by promising to kill himself live on air and then has to be dragged out of the studio.
Instead of ending his career, this episode makes him a media celebrity as ratings go through the roof, and under the direction of young and ambitious TV exec Diana (Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery) he becomes a “prophet of the airwaves”, ranting and raving and channelling the rage of the American people. Not everyone is very happy about Beale’s new calling.
Whether Beale is having a breakdown or a revelation, one thing is indisputable: Bryan Cranston is magnificent. Here’s an actor who can put a little madness in his eyes, who can play the prophet in his pyjamas and then then suddenly switch to steely sanity in a smart suit. He is absolutely compelling.
And Network may be a very seventies story, but in some ways it feels more relevant than ever.
Sure, the “dangers of television” is a well-worn theme and seems somehow outdated in an age of social media and “fake news” and Donald Trump’s Twitter rants. But at heart this is a play about who controls the spread of information and whether authentic rage can be manipulated and commercialised by the very people it intends to target.
With one eye on the present, this production cleverly updates the script while staying true to the original, inviting the audience to think more deeply about who’s pulling the strings backstage.
Also, it’s funny. It’s really funny. Cranston builds on the humour we saw in Peter Finch, but with a live audience he can really play the room. And Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery does a decent job as Diana, the ambitious TV executive who only has space in her heart for audience share and ratings – even if she lacks something of the manic-ness of Faye Dunaway’s version, the intensity and pent-up energy and bloody-mindedness.
This is a show that might grate for Americans, given the Brits in the cast sometimes forget their accents. Douglas Henshall’s version of ageing lovestruck fool and old-school news man Max Schumacher starts off on the right side of the Atlantic but ends up in Scotland whenever he gets emotional. Still, there’s one big surprise in the cast and that’s Tunji Kasim, who elevates the character of TV boss Frank Hackett from boring corporate hack to an executive full of machismo.
The staging is also ambitious, inviting the audience to question the relationship between ourselves and what we see on screen: a film crew runs around the stage livestreaming the action as Beale goes into meltdown like some grotesque reality show broadcast in real time.
The concept works – mostly. Occasionally it loses momentum and ends up feeling slightly lazy, relying on film footage rather than truly translating the narrative onto stage. But most of the time it has real power as we see events unfold in reality AND on screen, a blurring of perspectives that adds to the story.
At times the 21st century audience in London is even transformed into a studio audience, chanting: “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to TAKE IT ANY MORE!” And that’s a sentiment that strikes a chord in 2017 just as well as it did in 1976.
Network is at the National Theatre until 24th March. Box office: 020-7452 3000.