/Network: National Theatre (2018)

Network: National Theatre (2018)


I didn’t watch Breaking Bad in 2009. No – I only started watching it after I took a selfie with the main actor Bryan Cranston on the last night of the National Theatre’s production of Network. Some of you may know Cranston from the TV series Malcolm in the Middle. I knew him from the movies he was in, such as The Infiltrator, Wakefield, which I still need to finish, and, funnily enough, Power Rangers. It was a bit strange to find him in Power Rangers, but hey – everyone needs to pay the bills. As the voice and face of Zordon, he didn’t do a bad job, either.

No one can question Cranston’s masterful acting skills. I mean, the man can act – he practically knocks people off their seat. For Network, he took his award-winning skills to the Lyttelon stage and managed to live stream his face on camera, which he is so used to, for all of the audience to see. He did this almost every day and night from November 2017 until March 24, 2018. Goddamn, he was brilliant!

He was so good that I was screeching about it on the night. I actually lost my voice. That eventually happened to me anyway, as well as half of the audience. Halfway through the two-hour (no interval) show we were encouraged to shout multiple times, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”, mimicking the behaviour of Cranston’s character: another man, just like Breaking Bad’s Walter White, on the verge of a breakdown. I must admit though, it felt good to scream.

Bryan Cranston and Douglas Henshall (Photo by Jan Versweyveld).

Set in New York, TV anchor Howard Beale settles his TV audience for the usual news broadcast when suddenly, out of nowhere, he completely changes his tune and loses it. He calls the state of media ‘bullshit’ and tells the audience he will kill himself live on TV the following day. While this is happening the live studio go into panic mode: newspapers fly in the air, the phones ring endlessly with people complaining of Beale’s use of profanities; the runners stop running and the TV producers dash out of their offices to try and stop Beale from going off script.

This isn’t a new piece of writing, by the way. It actually comes from Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film, Network, which was adapted by Lee Hall. According to my boss at work (completely unrelated to the theatre), the film was written as a propaganda movie with the ethos of spreading racist commentary: getting rid of non-white people living in America. Naturally, I felt shocked by this because I hardly sensed any of that given the diverse cast and sitting among a mixed audience.

Bryan Cranston (Photo by Jan Versweyveld).

Still, until now, there are some serious conversations about racism in the 21st century. The production, directed by Ivo van Hove, was not about that; it was far from it. It felt much closer to our era: the infiltration of Fake News and regular exploitative politicians. Currently, with all of these discussions about diversity, lack of privacy, personal data being hacked, the power of social media and online lobbying, the show seems to chime with the audience without having to directly mention any of these controversial subjects on stage.

But one thing is for sure and that is Hove’s Network is not a political show. Network is an entertaining and thought-provoking ride backstage of a corrupt TV studio. 

Another part of the show I remember was when the news cut into 70s adverts of lingerie and car brands, while audience members, who paid in advance, were served a full course meal with Cranston and the rest of the cast eating, drinking, wandering and talking besides them. Initially, I wasn’t sure of the live kitchen’s place on stage, but it seemed to make a lot of sense as the cast began to use the diners as integral parts of the show.

Bryan Cranston (Photo by Jan Versweyveld).

Alongside Cranston’s flawless delivery of public outrage, of the current state of affairs, and Lee Hall’s zany, adapted script, the audience got to experience the show as live theatre and live film, all at once, thanks to the crafty work of its set designer, Jan Versweyveld and video designer, Tal Yarden. At first I spent too much time staring at the huge screen, which the camera operators were recording live feeds to, but I gave up and made it a mission to keep my eyes on the cast instead. This reminded me, a tiny bit, of Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s production at the Playhouse Theatre, 1984. I remember how intimidating those high screens were as the cameraman followed the actors behind the stage.

Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery was the overly ambitious TV producer Diana who didn’t know when to step on the brakes. Even after Diana has an orgasm she is back to talking about TV, news and the business of reality shows. Dockery is a cold shark on stage and fierce with Diana’s frosty words. And Richard Cordery as the network boss reminded me of the architect in The Matrix Reloaded. With a bright, white background behind him, he looked down at Beale like a god of capitalism and told him which mega corps were in charge. This was quite a fascinating moment; even I started to think he was talking sense.

What I enjoyed the most in Network was the way Cranston championed the role of Beale. Not only did he appear majorly convincing as a TV anchor, he managed to shout without the need to rant and prophesize without the urge to preach. Sadly, I don’t think there are plans to revive the production with Cranston anytime soon. I’m just glad I managed to find a way of getting one of the last seats to this explosive show.

Network has already ended its run.

For shows currently at the National Theatre, click here.

For more information on Network, click here.

(I purchased my own ticket.)