Note: This is a review of the matinee preview on Saturday 11th November 2017. The press night is this evening.
About midway through this long two hour show a performer demands to know how we are feeling. We're expected to join in a collective applauding of fictitious TV anchor Howard Beale and shouting out of his catchphrase (“I'm mad and I'm not gonna take it anymore”). As far as I'm concerned theatre has to earn my participation, persuade me to become complicit in such an act. This failed. I was bored and I quietly said so.
I haven''t seen the 1976 film on which this show is based, but a read of the plot on-line, scan of quotations on IMDb and a viewing of the trailer suggests that Lee Hall has made a pretty fair copy of the original. Looking at the trailer there is a noticeable difference to the emotional pitch – zany, tending to crazed, which this wearily slow-paced version fails to match. But I also wonder if the politics of the film – the power of television, the threat of a faceless corporate America, were more original and provocative in 1976 than they feel now. I felt I was listening to lectures on these matters I have heard frequently before and which, as so often at Norris's National, were not subjected to sufficient on-stage critique.
Also wearily familiar was the directorial style of Ivo van Hove, whose fame is increasingly inexplicable to me. Those NT regulars who only know him from Hedda Gabler may have found this fresher. To me it was tiresomely similar to the interminable Kings of War at the Barbican. There's a huge TV screen at the back of the stage (with four sound artists sitting on top of it) on which large chunks of the action, filmed by roving camera persons, is projected. As usual with all this filming the effect, as far as I was concerned, was to lose that powerful focus on individuals which the best theatre achieves. It also works bizarrely against the message of the text – that goes on and on about the zombifying effect of television, but my gaze rarely locked on performers because of the distracting paraphernalia around them.
Nor is this the only ineffective aspect of the direction. Because of the decision to offer people the to me baffling opportunity to eat a meal onstage while watching the show another projection of the action also has to be distractedly located in the top right side corner. Quite what these audience members purpose is in relation to the play is also rather baffling. They could have represented a studio audience, but van Hove pretty completely fails to use them as such. Occasional main cast scenes take place in their vicinity but without interacting with them, otherwise their only contribution is to shrink the stage for van Hove – no bad thing in itself, but not terribly helpful in creating a believable on-stage world, and the wait staff wandering around contribute to the general distracting busyness. I've already touched on the laboured breaking of the fourth wall – more subtle approaches to making the audience complicit could have had far greater power. Finally, in a play light on emotional feeling (particularly in the relationship between Diana (Michelle Dockery) and Max (Douglas Henshall) who deliver one of the most unconvincing stimulated sex scenes I can recall) van Hove having Dockery throw stuff around in a manner reminiscent of Ruth Wilson's Hedda is another overused ineffective device – there are other more subtle and powerful ways, to convey anger.
There's also a real problem with setting. The show starts off in 1970s America but increasingly loses concrete touch with that era. Instead it seems to want to comment on our present moment, but the overall effect is to become disconnected from both eras with a consequent loss of bite in delivery of its message. That's to say there are particular time specific factors connected to debates over the media, politics, capitalism in both periods, and the play is weakened by a failure to sufficiently engage with them. The colour blind casting also raises questions. I just do not find it convincing that in the United States of the 1970s the races would have mingled wholly unproblematically as they do here (it is instructive to note that the part of Hackett in the film is played by a white actor – does that more closely reflect contemporary realities in the TV industry?) There's also an especially ludicrous moment around the 1hr 15 mark. Up to this point the play has just about maintained the illusion that we are in the United States. Now it cuts to Dockery and Henshall being filmed wandering about outside the National before coming back inside to the onstage restaurant. So we're in London now are we? Just ridiculous.
None of the performers transcend the weaknesses of script and production. Bryan Cranston (is he the reason the run is sold out?) comes closest and I'd like to see him in a show worthy of his evident talents. I've seen both Dockery and Henshall give exceptional performances in other shows, neither of them manage it here. Tunji Kasim's Hackett shows promise but could achieve greater impact by shouting less, or by building to the shout more subtly – for example in the scene where he informs Henshall he's fired. Everybody else is underwritten and suffers accordingly.
Overall, if you haven't secured tickets this is one to avoid. If you have, and you enjoy van Hove's style then no doubt you will love this. Some gave it a standing ovation. As far as I was concerned it was a tedious two hours. More than anything else it confirmed my view on two points. Firstly, political theatre to be effective must allow proper debate of the issues it wishes to discuss, rather than preaching at its audience. Secondly, film and live theatre are two very different media – I have yet to see a van Hove production that successfully married the two. For me, another disappointing afternoon at Norris's National.