NETWORK – National Theatre ★★★

In London theatre, Opinion, Plays, Reviews by Libby PurvesLeave a Comment

Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – until 24 March 2018

PROFIT AND A PROPHET: RANTINGS AND RATINGS… I came to this a day late for tedious domestic reasons, but since the original film is about a news anchor, Howard Beale, going messianically nuts when he is sacked after 25 years for falling ratings – and then becoming a TV star for ranting against TV –  I felt a natural empathy.

Having just spent six months sulking (alas not messianically) after 34 years of a Radio 4 show (without falling ratings), I felt a certain wistful solidarity. Besides, the script is by Lee Hall and direction by Ivo van Hove, who never Van-hoves into view without at least being interesting. So, with yesterday’s first-nighters starring it between 2 and 5, the humble mice needed a view.

It must be said that Ivo the Inventive has gone over the top this time. The wide stage is split in three – a glass TV control cubicle one side, a vast central screen, and on the right some onstage seats where richer and earlier-booking audience members  are actually eating (they also score a disconcerting close-up view of a very funny quickie between Michelle Dockery’s programme chief Diana and the angsty midlife Schumacher). I think the idea is to suggest that we all watch TV while snogging or snacking, giving only grudging attention to the celebby performers we don’t care much about until they go nuts or get Yewtreed. Which is, broadly, true.

In the event, it deserves neither 2 nor 5, but wavers uncertainly, minute by minute in between. Bryan Cranston certainly earns every award going for his craggy, convincing Beale, moving from Dimblebyesque authority to a crazed Learlike breakdown, a self-indulgent, unwell despair. When he steadies, he is more  than powerful in his detailed denunciations of  capitalism, and marvellously weird when the corporate boss Jensen (a terrific sinister Richard Cordery) convinces him that only the money system works  now that there are no democratic nations only corporations (a slightly dated list of course, but we fill in Apple and Google for ourselves).

Cranston is, however, given one or two too many cracker-motto truisms to cope with,  especially at the end. For which I blame Mr Hall. It is the dementedly keen Diana who is strangely the most credibly written: not least when she starts buying terrorists’ home videos, or analysing ratings while giving a businesslike shag to her colleague. I think I’ve met her somewhere.

As to staging, there is mild irritation sometimes when a live conversation is near-invisible in the clutter of screens and set, so we have to see it on the big screen: the pre-filmed bits fit in with technical perfection but add to the distancing and cooling of the real, hot theatricality the live cast bring. This Katie-Mitchell-I-heart-video experimentalism in theatre is becoming, dare one mutter, a bit of a bore.

And the message? Some things strike home hard, especially the rise of news-tainment: some aspects feel dated now that  TV is being superseded by digital and social media. So does the rant against Saudi petrodollars – “you are owned by half a dozen medieval fanatics” – in the age of China. The show runs two hours straight, and a cut or two wouldn’t hurt. And though the famous “I’m mad as hell” shout is well staged with vox-pop surround-sound video, it palls a bit when we have to join in for the third time.

But it’s a different night out. And  Cranston is fantastic, a proper star.

Box office.   Sold out to end of the run (24 march) BUT
tickets are still available through Day Seats and Friday Rush.
rating three

Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.