Theatre: A ratings triumph that’s mad as hell

Bryan Cranston in Network

At the National Theatre, the 1976 Sidney Lumet/Paddy Chayefsky film Network has been adapted for the stage by Lee Hall and its impact has not diminished one jot. The script is a biting satire on the corruptive power of television and big business. The dangers have not gone away. “We are not in the business of morality,” explains a chief executive whose only concerns are the ratings and the money they will bring in.

Bryan Cranston, best known to British audiences for Breaking Bad, is very convincing as Howard Beale, veteran anchorman, who has a spectacular breakdown on air and threatens to kill himself in a week’s time. The TV company’s immediate response is to sack him; but when they find he has actually boosted ratings they then want him to deliver more demented diatribes.

Beale turns prophet and messiah and rouses the nation to hysteria, easily persuading viewers to get off their backsides and go to the window and yell, “I am mad as hell and I am not gonna take this any more!” Cranston even gets the National Theatre audience to shout out. Ivo Van Hove’s two-hour production has tremendous energy and pace and ranks among his very best work. The chaos is brilliantly marshalled.

Adaptations of the novels of Victor Hugo (1802-1885) have always been able to fill opera houses, theatres and cinemas. Think of the continuing success of Rigoletto, Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios is based on L’homme qui rit, published in 1869. The hero is Grinpayne, whose face was slashed from ear to ear when he was an orphaned child and left him with a grotesque grimace. What is special about this dark musical is not the story, or the music, but Tom Morris’s staging which mixes Grand Guignol, freak show, circus cart, pantomime and puppets.

Also at Trafalgar Studios is Australian playwright Tom Murphy’s Strangers in Between. There is a remarkable performance by Roly Botha as an unhappy 16-year-old country lad who runs away to Sydney and is befriended by two gay men. Botha begins on such a high neurotic note, verbally and physically, that I wondered if he would be able to keep it up for the whole performance. He did so most successfully.

Steven Berkoff’s East, “an elegy to the East End and its energetic waste”, is a series of self-indulgent, overlong monologues. The expletive-ridden and raucous script is a dexterous mixture of cockney argot and high-flown mock Shakespearian verse. “The acting has to be loose and smacking of danger,” said Berkoff. At King’s Head Theatre, James Craze and Jack Condon are particularly impressive and one of the high spots is their mimed motorbike ride. Condon becomes the motorbike, revving and changing gear, and Craze rides him using Condon’s arms as handlebars.

English National Ballet is touring Roland Petit’s existential masterpiece Le Jeune Homme et La Mort, a highly dramatic short one-act ballet, which caused a sensation at its Paris premiere in 1946. The libretto is by Jean Cocteau and the music is Bach’s Passacaglia. Charismatic Ivan Vasiliev brings enormous emotional and physical power to the young man who is driven to suicide by his faithless and cruel lover who turns out to be Death.