Network at the National Theatre review *****



National Theatre Lyttleton, 9th March 2018

Right then. Finally got to see Network. Booked early but this was the first date that BUD, KCK and the Blonde Bombshells could collectively make. A bit nervous because the last time we wheeled the Bombshells out to an Ivo van Hove entertainment it was Obsession at the Barbican which gets more disappointing as time elapses (Obsession at the Barbican Theatre review ***).

You can divide Mr van Hove’s work along three dimensions I reckon depending whether he adopts the “austere, psychologically insightful” or “busy, technological overload” aesthetic, whether or not he works with the Toneelgroep Amsterdam ensemble or other actors, and whether the play is drawn from a classic text or is adapted from a film. Most of the time he hits the jackpot but there is always a risk of disappointment, Obsession, the very dull Antigone a few years ago and the so-so After the Rehearsal/Persona Bergman adaption, being cases in point.

Obviously Network is brilliant. You know that from the reviews when it opened and all the social media buzz. Not just my opinion but the opinion of my guests who were well impressed. Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 media satire, directed by Sidney Lumet, is a marvellous film. I watched it again ahead of this just to check. Fast-moving, acidic, contemptuous, intelligent, disturbingly prescient, strident, it isn’t subtle but it is hugely effective. I particularly love the performances of Faye Dunaway as Diana Christensen, Robert Duvall as Frank Hackett and Marlene Warfield as Laureen Hobbs.

Now if I am honest Lee Hall did not strike me as an obvious choice to adapt Paddy Chayefsky’s precious script. Then again Mr Hall, the brains behind Billy Elliot, War Horse and Victoria and Abdul on screen, The Pitmen Painters, Shakespeare in Love and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour on stage, and an adept Brecht translator, is nothing if not versatile. Wisely he and Mr van Hove have elected to faithfully translate most of the vital dialogue from the film, with some minor shuffling between characters. The temptation to tamper with, for example, CCA Chairman Jensen’s excoriating speech about the power of capital, is resisted, as are Howard Beale’s own show sermons. It is unfortunate that the negotiation scenes involving the Ecumenical Liberation Army and the Communist Party of America are abandoned, they tickle me, but something had to give. The relationship between the obsessive TV programming executive Diana Christensen, whose only reference point is her own ambition, and news chief Max Schumacher, is fully preserved as is his wife’s, Louise Schumacher, pain at his betrayal. And all the corporate manoeuvring.

So plot, sub-plots and text vigorously reconstructed, what next? This is where the magic of Mr van Hove and his designer sidekick, Jan Versweyveld, really kicks in. The template they employ is well tested from the longstanding Toneelgroep Amsterdam Shakespeare adaptations, Roman Tragedies, and it more recent cousin, Kings of War. Extensive use of live, on-stage video and video fragments, mixed in real time, a stunning achievement from designer Tal Yarden and team. A thundering soundscape from Eric Sleichim with an on-stage quartet BLINDMAN. Costumes from An D’Huys which are exact re-creations of the mid 1970s setting. There is a “UBS” TV production suite on stage. There is, famously, a restaurant on one side. and costume and make-up desks lurk at the back of the stage. All the guts, the manipulation, of the production are on show and, because key scenes are set in a TV studio, this surely couldn’t be more effective. There is even a slightly time delayed video sequence where Max and Diana stroll along the South Bank with umbrella. (Mind you this couldn’t top the bemusement of some lost tourists caught on camera stumbling across the performance of Bart Siegers, I think, as Enobarbus, in Roman Tragedies, outside the Barbican).

In addition to the thrilling technical wizardry, Mr van Hove, breaks the wall, and ropes the audience in repeatedly as the story unfolds, in the warm-up at the top of the Howard Beale show, when Beale clambers into the audience and, obviously, when the assassin emerges at the end. The messages about the lengths broadcasters will go to to secure ratings, the ugly emptiness of much popular entertainment, the voracious appetite of the capitalist structure which sits behind this, the immorality and venality of those hardened by the system, the co-option of those who purport to stand against it, the alienation that they, and we, experience, ring out load. No updating of the plot required from an analogue to a digital world: the frantic, exhausting hyper-reality of the production does this for us. Remember the film was produced before the rise of neo-liberalism. Paddy Chayefsky died in 1981. If he was angry then, he’d be bloody livid now.

OK so there are one or two moments when being bashed over the head by this story and this production is a little tiring. But that I suppose is exactly the point, and you can chew more slowly on the content after the fact, as we have been doing.

As if this wasn’t enough we have an astonishing performance from Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale. Casting him looks to have been the most inspired of a string of inspired decisions around this production. Now as I understand it, Mr Cranston spent many years as a moderately successful jobbing actor before his turn in Malcolm in the Middle (never seen it), and then, famously, Breaking Bad. I generally can’t be doing with these TV series, preferring to see my pleasures in more concentrated form, as should be clear from this blog. However BB was an exception though it did test my patience at times across the 60 odd episodes. Still it is rare to see such a complete portrayal in any dramatic medium.

For me BC betters Peter Finch’s screen Howard by appearing to retain a better grasp on the forces around him. That is not to say that BC doesn’t show Beale’s mental collapse, just that, once his albeit damaged mind is made up to preach his disgust, he summons up a strength that Mr Finch’s more prophetic Beale lacks. The shift in Beale’s rhetoric post the meeting with Jensen is actually more satisfying on stage. Mr Cranston is riveting in the video close-ups as Beale moves from resignation, to desperation, through wild anger, and on to zealotry and an almost gnomic mysticism.

Michelle Dockery’s Diana is not quite as emptily amoral as Faye Dunaway’s on-screen version, but the relationship with Douglas Henshall’s Max just about works. The collapse of his shallow idealism is matched by his pathetic attempts to secure her empty affection. She never cares, he knows this from the start, he stops caring, in the end neither one of them cares. Beverly Longhurst, as Louise Schumacher, standing in for Caroline Faber gets to deliver the only really compassionate lines in the production when she boots him out. You should be very afraid of Richard Cordery’s Arthur Jensen, that’s what the men consumed by power at the top are like. I was also much persuaded by Tunji Kasim’s Frank Hackett, but frankly barely anyone puts a foot wrong here. Just as well, it would have been chaos if they had.

At its heart I think Network is a plea for our shared humanity not to be broken by an economic complex which seems to be beyond our understanding and influence, and not to be bullied and sedated by technology. What better place to do that than in the elemental forum for shared experience which is the theatre.

Beware the Infotainment Scam people. Mind you I might just have been scammed by Mr van Hove and his collaborators. It felt good though.