Tuesday, 28 November 2017
Network at The Lyttleton
Bryan Cranston has gone from Breaking Bad to Breaking Mad in Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s movie, Network, now showing at The Lyttleton Theatre. Except that Cranston brings an integrity to his troubled newsreader, Howard Beale, that shows that even during his rages, we’re witnessing someone who is perfectly sane rather than deranged. For his frequent anguished cry of “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more”, read “angry as hell”. Cranston’s nuanced performance ensures that his seventies prophet (the movie was made in 1976 and remains in this era here) has the audience in his thrall from the start.
Lee Hall’s adaptation of this Oscar winning satire is pretty much true to the original, apart from the toning down of the terrorist subplot and the affair between Beale’s colleague, Max Schumacher (Douglas Henshall) and the overly ambitious TV executive Diana Christensen (Michelle Dockery). He has made Beale the total focus and with such a strong actor in the title role, this is no bad thing at all. News anchor-man, Beale, a coiled spring, thanks to falling ratings and his own inner turmoil, finally breaks on air. Looking straight to camera, he announces that everything is “bullshit” and that he plans to kill himself live on air, in a week’s time.
It seems the viewing public love nothing more than a disaster happening on live TV, so that, combined with the collective view that something is rotten within the heart of America (no change there then) ensures that falling ratings start to rise. The suicide doesn’t happen; instead Beale’s popularity reaches epic proportions, which the News Network exploit to the full. They see a way to revive their flagging programme; why not make news more show bizzy even if it is at the expense of one man’s near descent into a nervous breakdown.
Ivo van Hove directs with his usual panache and uses his “techy” skills to accomplished effect in this production. The huge Lyttleton stage is transformed into a hyperactive TV studio complete with huge backstage screen that at times shows multiple videos at once (slightly distracting until one gets used to it, but then I guess that’s the idea). Cranston and various other members of the cast are often shown on screen as if we’re viewing them on television. Up close and personal, the craggy, slightly battered image of this great American actor leaves us in no doubt that he is perfect in the role, perfect even before he opens his mouth! Slightly strangely, situated stage left are several theatregoers enjoying dinner (all included in their ticket prices). I say strangely but actually it works, giving as it does, a visible audience to whom Cranston can direct many of his speeches.
Choreographing this “mayhem” on stage must have been a logistical headache, but it works like clockwork, even on a preview night when I went. The only sticking point for me is that I couldn’t quite believe in Michelle Dochery’s character, Diana. She shows perfectly well that this is one very pushy, ambitious young woman, but it is all so one dimensional and the real-time filmed walk outside between her and Max feels gimmicky and artificial. Let’s hope it has improved now previews are over.
This, however, is a minor fault which is more than overshadowed by the overall production and in particular, Bryan Cranston’s masterclass performance. Please don’t let it be too long before he returns to the London stage; I will be first in the booking queue.