FringeReview UK 2018
Brian Cranston leads with a devastatingly powerful and vulnerable Howard Beale who invites us to questions the forces around us, our own beliefs and what we are doing here. A spectacular piece of theatre that courses on the adrenaline of the live television countdown.
“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” The famous cry of rage from the 70s cult film Network has survived nearly fifty years and is called out to packed audiences at The National Theatre.
When Howard Beale goes to read the news live on air, he decides to announce that he will commit suicide in one weeks’ time. Having been physically and hilariously pulled off air, the suits then realise that this accidental cult hero of Howard Beale as the “angry prophet denouncing the dystopia of our time” is a huge bonus for ratings which soar as long as he stays on air. If there is a market for it anything can be commodified and sold back to us including our own rage and political discontent.
The peoples’ rage soon becomes a television show with the call to arms emblazoned on Mcdonalds style red and yellow and repeated by the dumb-arse audience- yes us! Yet on each programme of this tacky affair this ‘mad’ prophet speaks gently, kindly and wisely of our humanity. All is working well for him as TV ratings soar until he enlightens his audience on the Saudi conglomerate who are taking over the tv stations and invites his audience, as an act of protest, to turn off their televisions.
Beale finally meets his demise, a shooting is the only way his bosses see out of the situation. “And so Howard Beale became the only TV personality who died because of bad ratings”.
Network reminds us of a time, pre internet when the television had the monopoly on Media, teaching us, as Beale puts it, “how to think, how to dress, how to bring up our children” and television stations vied for ratings as we need likes and shares on Facebook.
Bryan Cranston, Mr White from Netflix’s Breaking Bad, is clearly a master of the stage as well as the screen. In this production he is both as we watch him live and on the huge screen behind him as Beale in Lee Hall’s adaptation of the film for the stage. His character in Breaking Bad attracted a cult following that some could say launched Netflix so it was inspired casting to have him as the caller to arms, the accidental hero inciting rebellion, questioning and rage from the masses.
Cranston’s ability to deliver a monologue is a master class in acting. He is light, gentle and funny, a clown who has lost his place, whilst a fury inside is building taking us to the zenith of each speech. On the way we feel every word and thought with him as he gives us the time to digest and consider.
Equally as memorable a performance is Michele Dockery. In her still, slender presence she plays the ruthlessly ambitious TV executive with animal athleticism. Ready to pounce on any business potentialshe grabs the opportunity of Beale, pushing aside her old-school lover — a sympathetic Douglas Henshall who captures the Greek tragedy of it all with his pathos and conflicted spirit.
Clearly the director, Ivo van Hove gave a lot of time to the script as well as the truly magnificent staging of the whole piece. Everything in the studio set is built towards the count downs where tension builds to the point of discomfort. Even the lights drop down to be in place for the very last second, the row of sound technicians stand above the high screen and look down like the Greek Gods as the make up assistants clear away two seconds before Beale calmly speaks like on air. It always felt there was a strong chorus element to this most modern of theatre productions with it’s intricate and elaborate forms of live filming. The energetic direction of the whole show is close to perfection and with two hours and no interval we don’t miss a word.
Hall has kept Network in the ‘70s but the Middle East wars and economic crisis hasn’t changed much so this is completely relevant and speaks to todays’ audience with pertinence. We are in a recognisable world of political disenchantment, with desperate TV executives looking for any way to boost the ratings and get one over on their corporate rivals.
The script, costume and set have cleverly managed to be truthful to the 70’s yet, in no way a retro piece and is easily set for today.
This is a hugely exciting event in London. Even the matinee which I saw had a buzz as stepped into the television studio with its massive central screen with it’s own on stage restaurant for audience members. As we ponder the existential questions each character faces we are also aware of which course the customers are on as we hear the gentle clinking of their cutlery.
It’s rarely a piece of theatre can wow you with it’s technical expertise and touch your heart and mind with the most obvious yet rarely asked questions about life and what we are doing here. This piece does just that.