Bryan Cranston, star of Netflix show Breaking Bad, is the big draw for this 2018 offering from the National Theatre, and he doesn’t disappoint. Fully deserving of the Olivier Award for Best Actor, he powers this performance as news presenter Howard Beale, bringing the audience along from intended suicide declared live on air to entirely unexpected TV stardom.
Network is definitely a novel and innovative experience. Foodwork sees theatre-goers dining on-stage for £95 each and watching the show from their tables. It’s worth taking your regular seat in the audience early too in order to observe the stars of the show being primped in the on-stage dressing room, as well as people wandering the stage taking selfies with the audience. The screen counts down the minutes to the beginning of the performance, just as during the play the timer repeatedly counts down to going live for the news shows (something I find weirdly stressful to watch as last minute tweaks to Howard’s tie occur seconds before going live).
The use of technology is inspired. Film in the performance is both pre-recorded and live. When Howard and Max Schumacher (Douglas Henshall) are drinking at the bar to the far right of the stage with their backs to the audience, a camera brings up their faces on a central stage screen. It is also ominous – Howard is being watched and followed from the very beginning with a lens, his private moments with a colleague also a performance. Later on a scene is shot by the Southbank, live, as Max and Diana Christensen (Michelle Dockery) walk by the Thames in the evening air before hopping straight back on stage. It is cool to get a behind the scenes glimpse of this once actors only route. Although Michelle Dockery is great I’m not a big fan of the ‘romantic’ subplot between Max and Diana. Perhaps though the very point of it is to be boring, frustrating and meaningless – the stereotype of young, ambitious, work-focused woman at office has relationship with married man. We’re playing it out exactly how she is directing, Max says in a conversation with his wife, in the ‘scene where the man leaves his wife’. This part of the play is cliche, deliberately so, although the sex scene which happens on a neighbouring table in the midst of the on stage audience is certainly a surprise for the diners!
Although Network is based on a 1970s film by Paddy Chayefsky it feels incredibly contemporary and scary relevant, poking the power of populism. American presidents’ faces show up on screen as the play finishes, predictably Obama meets with applause and cheers and Trump with boos.
Audience interaction is encouraged. As Howard’s TV audience we are told to shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore”, with a warm up guy giving it an American reality TV show feel. The power this opens up is ripe for manipulation…
In a network we are all connected, but this seems no good thing. It makes me think of the negatives of constant on-screen attempts at communication, engagement and entertainment and the sometimes detrimental effect this has on real world relationships and interactions.
Ivo Van Hove returns as director to the National Theatre. Whilst his Hedda Gabler with Ruth Wilson wins for me personally over Network, it’s great to see theatre kept exciting and experimental, and is very much recommended for those interested in tech as well as theatre (my partner loved it). Whilst Network sold out completely we managed to get tickets through the National Theatre’s Friday Rush scheme – always worth trying out if there’s a sold out show you want to try and see.