This isn’t the first theatre outing I’ve had this year but it is the first one that has compelled me to write a review. Once the buzz started about this production, I booked myself a ticket for a Wednesday matinee in January to give myself something to look forward to. I haven’t seen the film (or watched Breaking Bad) but I could see that Bryan Cranston in Network at the National would be one not to miss.
If you’re going, this is definitely one for taking your seat as soon as the doors open as when you go in the stage is already very busy. Actors are milling around around the set which is backstage at a television news show, there is hair and make up being done at the back on the left, you can see into a kitchen at the back on the right and a large digital clock counts down to the start of the show.
There are also about 35 audience members sitting at tables on the right of the stage in the (I expect) very expensive seats where they get served drinks and a meal during the show. Personally, I do find this somewhat distracting from the action and I was amused that four or five of them at different points during the show were escorted off stage, I presume to the toilet, and back again (there’s no interval and they keep drinking!).
I enjoyed this production immensely. The staging is very impressive and makes the whole thing extremely watchable, although at times you’re not sure whether to watch the screens or the actors (or, indeed, the people eating a meal). The story itself isn’t very complicated or in depth and so without the added production value I’m not sure it would have been as good.
The use of film is particularly effective. There is a large screen at the back of the stage which is used in a variety of ways. When Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston) is broadcasting you see him onstage but you also see it on screen as though you were watching him on television. When they break to the ads you see old American ads on the screen, which is quite fun.
At one point you see two of the actors (Douglas Henshall and Michelle Dockery) outside the theatre by the river as they start talking and walking along the outside of the building. They end up walking back into the theatre and onto the stage. I expect they filmed it in advance – once during the daytime for matinees, and once in the dark for evening performances – but it is very well done. There were other times when they definitely slipped a pre-recorded bit of film on. This is done especially effectively at the end of the play after (spoiler alert!) Howard is shot and dies. The film on the screen is of him lying on the floor, bloody and everyone crowding around and before you even realise it he has come out to the front of the stage to talk to the audience, whilst you can still see him on the screen lying on the floor.
Another time, Bryan Cranston goes to sit in the 2nd row of the audience and a camera pans out to show the whole view from the stage. There are also a few camera operators on stage, so that when the action is at the side you can still see what is happening on the screen, from wherever you are sitting.
Bryan Cranston was fantastic and had quite a few funny moments of interaction with the audience. For example, when wandering among the diners on the stage he picked up an iPhone and said “what’s this, a cigarette holder?” And when he sat next to a woman in the audience he asked her if she’s in the army as she was wearing a sweatshirt which said “Army” on it. She wasn’t.
I was amused by the effort which one of the actors had to make to get the audience to participate whenever he came on as the host of a TV show, when each time he wanted the audience to applaud and shout out a line that is on the screen: “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.” I don’t think the typical National Theatre audience expects to be asked to participate and on that day they certainly seemed a bit reluctant to do so!
As the audience leaves the auditorium, they show footage of each American president from the last few decades taking their oath of office. When I was there, Obama got a round of applause whilst Trump got booed and someone shouted “liar”!
Date of visit: Wednesday 31st January 2018
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