Here we have a play,
based on a film, about television, with heavy use of video (live, recorded and
even outside broadcasting), incorporating social media, onstage DJs and
audience members cooked and served dinner live in the restaurant situated stage
left. It’s safe to say that every remaining penny of the National’s 2017 budget
must now have gone on the staging of Lee Hall’s adaptation of the 1976
It’s powerful, moving, absorbing and above all, bloody exciting to watch.
With so much potential eye-porn, it’s easy to imagine the effect bewildering. But underneath it all, the triptych of Ivan van Howe’s minutely choreographed direction; Bryan Cranston’s hypnotically inclusive performance as Howard Beale and Tai Yarden’s seamless integration of video as both lead and supporting cast member, create and maintain a clear focus whilst the surrounding environs enthrals. The effect is as though watching a sumptuous movie with all its technological trickery being wholly reimagined for the stage rather than simply being adapted for its wooden floors. It’s powerful, moving, absorbing and above all, bloody exciting to watch.
The original film is nearly 40 years old and though this script is relatively – sometimes word for word (bar a few subplot digressions) – faithful to the original screenplay, the undercurrent theme as depressingly relevant and recognisable today as it was then. Put aside the fact that it happens on the medium of television and the unravelling of Beale in front of the eyes of the country as he finally “runs out of bullshit”, captures the mood of a dissatisfied nation and rallies them to take a stand and shout that they are “not going to take this any more” has always been part of the zeitgeist. The human desire to be individual but feel more comfortable if it can be “individual en masse” may seem more prevalent today considering our love-hate relationship with social media –one could look at its impact on the current Labour Party leadership – but it’s nothing new. The modernity of the staging with the references to the past which remain in the script, manages to maintain this relevance much more so than if the setting had been changed from the fictional UBS TV Network to a TwitterBook-style corporation of today.
At its centre is Cranston who – possibly to his chagrin – most of us know from his angrily, despairing yet determined performance in Breaking Bad. And he brings that same bubbling anger of the righteous, that frustration of the letdown to his performance as Beale. His anger is at the back of his eyes as it underpins his every movement, no matter how lighthearted it may be. It’s as though it is the cocaine of his emotions; he may not want it but has fallen to its addictive qualities and allows it to power his orations on camera, on screen, making it possess him, the stage and ultimately us watching (coming off stage and taking a seat in the stalls at one point without even a chip being made into the fourth wall). If he is the addict, he wants to share and boy does he make us succumb.
There’s no nice resolution here and no real depth or backstories to the characters that are external to the central story being told so there is no satisfied completion to be gained from the two, interval free hours. But that is to its credit as it even cuts down the film’s subplots of a “midlife-crisis-meets-ambition” affair, and the giving of a voice to terrorists, so maintaining a laser sharp focus at the centre of the theatrical ebullience. This is surely the National at its best, so though it is unsurprisingly already sold out, I would urge you to try for Day Seats and Friday Rush tickets if you can. You may feel downcast at being reminded that we are all but tiny nodules in the sprawling carcass of a planet made up more of corporations than countries, but a better enriched nodule you will be for being a part of this particular Network.