national theatre

Network

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.

Medea

Medea at the National is a superb new production of Euripes’ classic tale – first performed in 431 BC. Medea (Helen McCrory) has separated from her husband Jason (Danny Sapani), and been banished to some far flung part of Greece with her two sons. Jason is to marry the daughter of Creon, King of Corinth. She’s mad with rage and wants revenge.

It’s just a question of what she’ll do to get her revenge – and how far it’ll take her.

From the opening scene where we see Medea howling and screaming in the woods, we can see that all is not well with her. And it’s the beautiful shifts in mood and tone that give rise to a schizophrenic Medea. She is sometimes calm, but something will anger her and her blood boils up.

It’s all beautifully played by McCrory who puts everything into her part. It must be an incredibly demanding piece to perform night after night. The play may only run 90 minutes, but by the end McCrory looks completely drained.

The chorus are a fascinating part of this story – part essential to Greek theatre, but part watching audience. As Medea’s revenge, and madness begin to take shape, the chorus begins to be culpable. Why did they not stop Medea doing what she was going to do? We can sometimes look at ourselves today and say the same thing. A tragedy in slow motion being watched under our own gaze.

There’s a dance element to this production, with the chorus and others bringing some abstract movement to the piece. The strange jerkiness in some of their movements was odd, but perhaps indicative of the mixed up world we were in.

The set is a terrific rundown 70s building – concrete and open – with a room above it that acts primarily as the setting for the wedding of Jason and Glauce. Through the back are the looming woods where Medea goes to find peace from her inner anguish.

I also loved the music by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp, but then I’m a big Goldfrapp fan anyway. However, it definitely added to the atmosphere and it worked well with the dance elements of the play.

In the shocking final act – this play may be getting on for 2,500 years old, but I won’t be the one to spoil it for you – a woman next to me put her hands over her face as though in a horror film.

This is all about McCrory and her tour-de-force.

Medea is on at the Olivier until 4 September when it’ll be broadcast to cinemas as part of NTLive. And there’s a great piece in The Guardian with McCrory and Diana Rigg relating how they each play(ed) the part.