There are timely productions, and then there’s Network, starring Douglas Henshall. The play, adapted from the Oscar-winning 1976 film, deals with issues including fake news, celebrity, populism and the politics of media. Its most famous line, delivered by suicidal news anchor Howard Beale, is “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” If ever a line summed up the mood of 2017, it’s surely this one.
In Lee Hall’s adaptation premieres at the National Theatre this month. Bryan “Breaking Bad” Cranston plays Beale. But for theatre fans it’s equally exciting to see Douglas Henshall in the role of his boss, Max Schumacher.
Henshall’s is a name whose presence on a cast list always indicates a certain quality. From 55 Days to The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot, his CV is peppered with acclaimed productions and challenging characters. Although he’s best known for leading roles in TV series including Shetland and Primeval, it’s on stage that he has truly spread his wings.
Our interview takes place during a break in tech rehearsals. I can’t resist asking for more details of the staging, which includes a dining area for audience members. “It’s the coolest set I’ve ever seen,” Henshall says promisingly. “But I’m not going to tell you about it, because I don’t want to ruin it for anybody.” Ah.
We change tack to discuss the story of Network. He describes the film, which he re-watched prior to rehearsals, as “innately theatrical”. So much so that he “couldn’t believe nobody has [staged it] before”. And he says Hall has remained faithful to Paddy Chayefsky’s original screenplay: “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”
He describes Cranston as a “lovely” castmate. “He’s as you would imagine – super professional, generous, kind and easy-going. He’s great.” I’m intrigued to know whether they’ve had much chance to discuss Trump, Brexit and the general state of the world, considering the themes of the play. But he says the schedule has been so tight they’ve barely had time to have a cup of tea.
His character, Max Schumacher, is Howard Beale’s friend as well as his boss. The play starts with him facing the awkward task of having to sack his pal. Schumacher represents the “old school of broadcast journalists”, says Henshall, who highlights the fact that although the script is faithful to the original, his portrayal of Schumacher differs significantly from William Holden’s on screen.
As well as his wranglings with Beale, Schumacher also has a love story with Diana Christensen, played by Michelle Dockery. “It’s a really nice story and fairly untypical of how love stories go,” reveals Henshall. “Paddy Chayefsky was pretty forward-thinking at the time, considering how sexist the ’70s were. There’s a bit of a gender role reversal in their relationship and I like the way he’s done that.”
Henshall is effusive in his praise of director Ivo Van Hove, the man every actor wants to work with. “It’s a huge show, there are so many different facets to it, so he’s very focused and intense but has a great sense of humour alongside it.”
The project was apparently in development for several years before coming to the National, but the timing of its premiere seems impeccable. Henshall agrees: “It’s easy to imagine that Chayefsky was some kind of fortune teller; it really could have been written yesterday.”
Henshall was born in Glasgow but has lived London for 30 years. He recently became a father and is looking forward to having some time free during the day once the run gets going. He’s also enjoying being back at the National after a hiatus of 15 years. His last appearance was in Tom Stoppard’s trilogy The Coast Of Utopia back in 2002.
“It’s a very nice place to work. The moment you walk in the door it’s very welcoming.” He particularly enjoys the multistorey dressing rooms, where actors famously bang on the windows ahead of opening nights. “There’s a nice Rear Window element to it,” he laughs.
He reminisces about the “symbiotic” relationship with the audience of The Coast Of Utopia, which was a nine-hour epic. The vibe is bound to be very different for Network, which is two hours straight through. But its impact should be no less intense. “We’re facing a wall of misinformation everywhere,” says Henshall. “For me, there has never been a time when the media has been so weaponised… The politics of Network are terrifyingly resonant.”