JOE GILL sees a thrilling assault on corporate gangsterism in the media
Network, National Theatre, London
“I’M MAD as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Anyone who has seen the original ’70s cult film Network will never forget that famous call to arms by news anchor turned TV prophet Howard Beale.
Having run out of “bullshit,” that’s what he thunders to the millions watching.
Bryan Cranston, Mr White from Netflix’s Breaking Bad, is cast perfectly as Beale in Lee Hall’s adaptation of the film for the stage.
Cranston steals up on that famous monologue, delivering it in a masterclass of quietly gathering rage.
He’s made Breaking Bad’s suburban school teacher turned drug kingpin into the most compelling character on TV and his onscreen musings as a man on the edge at the iniquities of the modern world is equally electrifying.
He’s ably supported by Michele Dockery, a joy as the ruthlessly ambitious TV executive who spots the business potential presented by Beale and grabs it, pushing aside her old-school newsman lover — a sympathetic Douglas Henshall — as she does so.
Hall has kept Network in the ’70s heyday of US television amid the Middle East wars and economic crisis of the time. But we’re in a recognisable world of political disenchantment, with desperate TV executives looking for any way to boost the ratings and get one over on their corporate rivals.
Network has a bigger target than the idiocies of commercial TV. The accidental phenomenon of Beale’s new TV persona is first rejected and then embraced by the suits, revealing the way that the media and capitalism will commodify anything, including fury at the political system and sell it back to us.
Yet the moment Beale turns his ire on his own corporate masters and the Saudi Arabian conglomerate taking them over, the real limits on free speech are revealed. In a brilliant, almost Marxist monologue delivered in a soft southern drawl by the wonderful Richard Cordery, the big boss explains how the system really works.
Beale, in his televised unmasking of the corporate takeovers, has “meddled with the primal forces”, and the “inexorable movement of capital.” This is not allowed and Beale must become a voice of the system or be crushed.
This hugely entertaining revival, with its TV studio set, massive central screen and moments of reality TV-style audience participation, brings us bang up to date with our own era of corporate political gangsterism.
Runs until March 24, box office: nationaltheatre.org.uk