I knew next to nothing about Network going into this play, having not seen the 1976 Paddy Chayefsky film, which starred Peter Finch, William Holden and Faye Dunaway. The National Theatre has bought this piece about the media and news to the stage with the help of Lee Hall and Ivo van Hove.
Network is the story of Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston) who finds himself at the centre of a battle between the old and the new at his news network. When he’s fired by his best friend and news manager Max (Douglas Henshall), his no-bs approach catches the eye of up-and-coming executive Diana (Michelle Dockery), who sees him as integral to the network climbing the ratings.
Although this is a phrase that is perhaps overused, Network is truly a theatrical experience. Ivo van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld have transformed the Lyttelton Theatre into a newsroom, complete with roving cameras and an entire restaurant on stage (named ‘Foodwork’ which has unfortunately sold-out for the whole run). I don’t want to ruin the very cool experience of watching this show, but it was not what I expected in the slightest and I really, really enjoyed the experience.
The plot itself feels depressingly prescient, especially when considering the rise of ‘fake news’, and the slightly ridiculous American news networks falling over themselves for ratings as opposed to accuracy. Beale’s final lines of the play are a particular reminder to the audience to look for the shades of grey in the world around them; rather than craving someone to tell them exactly what to think about specific events. There is a sub-plot involving Max’s marriage, which I felt like could be cut-out with the main plot being minimally impacted; it felt like Max’s wife especially just wasn’t developed enough for the audience to really…care that much.
In addition to the sheer experience of Network, this is a play that really belongs to the ensemble of performers. Douglas Henshall is good as Max, although perhaps not as craggily middle-aged as the role requires, and Michelle Dockery channels Lady Mary as the icey, career-obsessed Diana (and I’d love to get my hands on her An D’Huys designed wardrobe). Another strong performance comes from Tunji Kasim as Frank Hackett, the new executive who is obsessed with increasing profit. However, the show does really belong to Bryan Cranston who gives a phenomenal performance as a man who is ‘mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore’. His ability to switch from rage to calm is great; and he has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand from the minute he steps on stage.
I’m not sure how easy it is to get tickets for the rest of its run (until March), but I would really recommend hunting down a ticket if you can; it’s not a theatrical experience I’ll forget in a hurry.