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25 November 2017updated 28 Nov 2017 3:09pm

Network is a two-hour lesson on the dangerous attraction of formless, pointless anger

Bryan Cranston stuns in Ivo van Hove’s dazzling theatre update of the 1976 film.

By Helen Lewis

Twenty years before the founding of Fox News and 30 years before the creation of Twitter, the screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky and the director Sidney Lumet imagined a world where endless, formless anger is not just tolerated but rewarded. Their 1976 film Network tells the story of Howard Beale, who reacts to his imminent firing as a newscaster by going on air and announcing that he will kill himself, live in the studio.

But the film version isn’t sold as Howard’s story. He’s the sideshow to his enablers: the wintry lion of an old-school news boss, Max Schumacher, and the young, ambitious, sexually voracious and utterly amoral Diana Christensen. Max, too, feels slighted by his corporate seniors and makes the fateful decision to put Howard back on air, where his ranting prophet act turns around his falling ratings. When Max gets uneasy at turning a mentally ill man into a televised Jeremiah, he is unceremoniously deposed by Diana, with whom he is in love. (“I’m not sure she’s capable of any real feelings,” Max tells his wife. “She learned life from Bugs Bunny.”)

Ivo van Hove’s dazzling update, from a script by Lee Hall, shaves down the Max/Diana plotline to a nub and ditches entirely the funny scenes in which a terrorist group proves surprisingly adept at negotiating a contract for its own show. This is Howard’s story unequivocally, and the lead actor, Bryan Cranston, best known for Breaking Bad, makes the most of the opportunity.

In a production that relies heavily on video – the first scene happens provocatively on the edge of the wings, forcing the audience to watch it on the huge monitor centre stage – Cranston delivers a performance that is by turns demented, pathetic, unhinged and fragile. We see him both trussed up with the showman trappings of television, tissues tucked into his collar to avoid getting make-up on his shirt, and stripped to his vest and pants, sitting cross-legged at the front of the stage and chattering to the audience like a pansticked King Lear.

It’s a credit to the power of his performance that his portrayal of mental collapse isn’t drowned by the formal experimentation of the staging. As well as the projection work, there are the four musicians perched above the giant video screen, like Kraftwerk; some of the action happens in a sealed glass box; and there’s a whole restaurant on  stage, complete with paying diners.

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Is the medium the message, though? This is a play all about watching, and van Hove is keen to turn the production’s gaze back on the audience as much as possible. On press night, as Max and Diana humped at a restaurant table, most of the diners tried to maintain that polite disinterest of people on a Tube carriage trying to pretend they haven’t noticed a huge marital row kicking off in their midst.

I could have cheered the one guy who leaned back in his seat for a closer look; it was the only unselfconsciously honest response. (Incidentally, the supporting cast is noticeably weaker than Cranston. I’ve faked orgasms more convincingly than Michelle Dockery and I didn’t even go to drama school.) Later, the camera following Howard is turned on the auditorium, and everyone cranes to spot themselves, like those people who go mad at being on the big screen at Wembley.

When the time comes for Howard to deliver his iconic speech, Cranston reminded me of a great actor tackling Shakespeare. He took “I’m mad as hell – and I’m not going to take it any more!” and made it sound freshly minted. The same cannot be said for the audience; we were encouraged to bellow it later and descended straight into ham. 

Then, after the curtain call, a final twist. As the cast left the stage, footage of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration began to play. “Oh, God,” I said, turning to my date. “We’re heading for Trump, aren’t we?” And so we were. But first, Obama: cue cheers. Then the tangerine fascist himself. “You’re fired,” shouted one man, to loud laughter.

And inevitably, after a two-hour lesson on the dangerous attraction of formless, pointless anger, someone took the bait. “I’m mad as hell,” shouted one guy, “and I’m…” But you already know the rest. 

“Network” is at the National Theatre, London SE1, until 28 March 2018

This article appears in the 22 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder