The 1976 Paddy Chayefsky film is something of a classic with Peter Finch’s network news anchor Howard Beale essentially having a nervous breakdown on air when the network first tries to push him out the door, and then, when ratings soar, grab hold of him and let him do what he wants. It has always been a favourite of mine, revealing the uneasy relationship between the needs of news and commerce.
“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore,” becomes Beale’s mantra.
Now Lee Hall has adapted the film for the stage, and the National Theatre has staged something of a coup by getting Bryan Cranston to star in it. And it’s just staggeringly relevant in 2017 – perhaps even more than it was in 1976.
The stage version sticks to its mid-seventies setting, with the cast dressed up in power suits of the period. Yet the design is also very much 2017, not least with the extraordinary set. The Lyttleton’s stage is opened up to the fullest extent possible, and a working restaurant has been installed along the righthand side – real diners being served from a working kitchen at the very back of the stage. Some of the action takes place in the restaurant, including one scene that left some of the real diners a little stunned.
Along the lefthand side of the stage, the set becomes the workings of a TV studio, with a glass control booth and make-up chairs.
The centre of the stage is largely bare, but is dominated by an enormous screen that becomes a vital part of the production. Into this are wheeled a news desk and camera crews at various points in the play. Throughout proceedings, the action around a ridiculously busy set is captured by roving camera crews and fixed cameras. This is a multimedia production in the truest sense of the word – one scene even starting outside on the South Bank.
Michelle Dockery is the scheming Diana, ruthlessly pushing the Howard Beale show on sometimes initially reluctant bosses. And Douglas Henshall is Max, Beale’s producer, both appalled and party to what transpires.
I wasn’t completely won over by the music, performed live by four Kraftwerk-a-like performers each in front of a laptop, positioned high above the set. But astonishingly good use is made between actors and video screens, with the on-stage camera operators framing things beautifully, often with infinite loops of imagery caused by screens within screens.
I wish I’d picked up a copy of Lee Hall’s script (I may still do so), because there are passages in it that scream out for only the tiniest changes to make them completely relevant in a “Fake News” world.
The play also explores the corporate machinations that lead to the provision of news. News Divisions don’t turn a profit, we’re told. And that all seems extraordinarily relevant too, at a time when questions hang over the future of Sky News were Sky’s takeover to be rejected, and the rumoured demands of the US Department of Justice that Turner Broadcasting (including CNN) be sold if AT&T is to be allowed to takeover Time Warner.
But this is a tour de force from Cranston as the unbalanced Beale. At times he both holds the stage and the camera simultaneously.