Famous for playing chemistry teacher turned criminal mastermind Walter White in Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston makes his London stage debut at the National in an adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1976 film Network. Directed by Ivo Van Hove, who regularly fires out ambitious, academic blockbusters (recent examples include Ruth Wilson’s sneeringly desperate Hedda Gabler, and Mark Strong’s claustrophobic, physical performance in A View From the Bridge), Cranston plays the once-celebrated news anchorman Howard Beale, told he’s going to lose his job due to plummeting viewers. Delivering wild, unhinged performances on air, and yelling the famous line, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”, Beale boosts his ratings and becomes a populist hero in the process—a spokesperson for a deep-seated, nationwide frustration.
If you’re keen for some more robust, state-of-the-nation stuff, head up to the Almeida, where Mike Bartlett’s play Albion is, as the name suggests, a sweeping probe into the fissures spreading through post-Brexit Britain. A Chekhovian-style family drama, set in the garden of a rambling country house, its central relationships symbolize a set of now-familiar binaries: older generations versus younger generations, working classes versus Eastern European economic migrants, liberalism versus conservatism. Such a broad subject matter won’t appeal to everyone—at times, the script is too authoritative, and its lack of nuance makes it feel a little outdated—more suited to 2016 than 2017, perhaps. But it is thought-provoking, packed with strong performances, and has a fantastic, flower-jammed set.
Down on the Cut, the Young Vic is reprising The Suppliant Woman. A modern take on Aeschylus’s 2,500-year-old tragedy, it sees a chorus of female volunteers act out the story of 50 women who board a boat in North Africa and land in Argos, seeking refuge from forced marriages with their Egyptian cousins. Despite the fact these woman are fleeing men not war, the clear parallels to the ongoing refugee crisis are starkly resonant.
If prescience appeals, then you might like the latest offering from political playwright of the moment, James Graham. Having written about Thatcher’s childhood and Edward Snowden, the Suez Crisis and the Labour government’s struggle to survive in the 70s, the prolific writer currently has two shows playing on St. Martin’s Lane alone. In Quiz, premiering at the Chichester Theatre Festival, he turns his attention away from pollsters and parties to Charles Ingram, a former army officer who, in 2001, won Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Two years later, he was found guilty of deception, with a jury deciding that he used an in-audience accomplice to cough when an answer was correct. Focused on the merging of reality and fantasy, the play clearly chimes with themes dominating the political landscape, but is also a meditation on the “oddly endearing culture, quite middle class, quite southern English” of quiz fanatics.
Back up the road, the National Theatre is staging Inua Ellams’s The Barbershop Chronicles. As a teenager, the poet, playwright and artist was fixated by the rows of barbershops near home in Peckham, which reminded him of his childhood in Nigeria. So, set in April 2012, on the night Chelsea beat Barcelona in a Champions League semi-final, his play is set in a series of six barbershops: five in Africa, and one in south London. Structured around series of conversations, revelations, jokes, spats and anecdotes, the show frames the barbers as a stage, a soap-box, and a confessional, and is a comic and sharp exploration of black masculinity.—Isobel Thompson
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