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.

Some forthcoming London theatre ideas


So we have had a few new season announcements over the past few weeks so here is a wrap up of what I think looks interesting in terms of stuff coming up on various London stages.

To spare you crawling through all this guff here is my top ten, including the best of these recent new season announcements in my view, and some other incumbent recommendations.

  1. The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre. So I know the decent seats are exorbitantly priced and this has come in for a bit of “paddywackery” backlash but it is still a towering play and is a must see.
  2. Hamlet at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Ditto. This is just a brilliant Hamlet from Andrew Scott and must be seen whatever you view on Will S.
  3. Network at the National Theatre. Should be a cracker – more details below
  4. Macbeth at the Barbican. In Japanese (with surtitles) but this is a classic production which I am very excited about.
  5. I Am Rachel Corrie at the Young Vic. Erin Doherty in the lead in this revival.
  6. Gundog at the Royal Court Theatre. I have a feeling this will be good.
  7. Albion at the Almeida Theatre. The next hit from the Almeida?
  8. Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre. I have banged on about this before but all is in place for the Bridge’s first offer.
  9. Insignificance at the Arcola Theatre. Revival of Terry Johnson brainy classic.
  10. Poison at the Orange Tree Theatre. I think this will be another triumph of discovery at Paul Miller’s Orange Tree.

More detail below.

Young Vic

New season is up. Best of the bunch for me is a revival of I Am Rachel Corrie based on the eponymous activists diaries with Erin Doherty in the lead. I have said before that I think Ms Doherty will become a stage legend and this should support that idea. The Jungle also caught my eye, with a whole bunch of tip-top creatives weaving stories from the Calais refugee camp. This is the sort of thing the Young Vic excels at. I am also looking forward to Wings with Juliet Stevenson in the lead and the Suppliant Women.

Royal Court Theatre

A whole bunch of goodies in the new season with three takes on the impact of war, Minefield, Bad Roads and Goats, and a US transfer, Grimly Handsome which has already sold out. My money is on My Mum’s a Twat a debut play from Anoushka Warden which RC’s Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone is directing, Girls and Boys, a relationship drama from Dennis Kelly (who writes for the telly) and directed by Lyndsey Turner, and, sounding best of all, Gundog, which has a nice ring of folk horror about it in the blurb. As usual with the RC there is not much to go on but I have a very good feeling about this. Ms Featherstone also directing.

Almeida Theatre

The Almeida can’t put a foot wrong under Rupert Goold with Ink the latest hit (sold out at the Almeida but go see it in the West End Transfer – you won’t regret it). I am booked for all 3 of the new season productions.

Mr Goold himself will direct Albion, Mike Bartlett’s new play. This has “state of the nation” written all over it but Mr Bartlett is a terrific writer so no need to fear. His last outing Wild at the Hampstead was good if not outstanding but this seems to have all the ingredients including a rareish outing for Victoria Hamilton on stage (you will have seen her in numerous period dramas).

Also intriguing is the Twilight Zone a world premiere from Anne Washburn based on, you guessed it, the Twilight Zone TV series from the 60’s. Now I can’t pretend I was bowled over by Ms Washburn’s Mr Burns but you have to admit this sounds quite exciting especially as it will be directed by the reliably controversial opera director Richard Jones.

After all this excitement the last play in the new season is a bit more classical in Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke directed by Rebecca Frecknall (who has taken on this relative rarity before at the Southwark Playhouse) and with Patsy Ferran seemingly perfectly cast in the lead.

Donmar Warehouse

There are still a few tickets left for the new version of Ibsen’s Lady from the Sea and more for the Knives in Hens revival which should show director Yael Farber in her best light after the tricky Salome at the NT. Knives in Hens is a spare, poetic love triangle that gets regular revivals because, er, it is very, very good.

Old Vic 

Tickets now on sale for The Divide the new dystopian drama from the pen of Alan Ayckbourn. It is in two parts and I have no idea how it will pan out. It will be premiered at the Edinburgh Festival so probably worth waiting to see how it is received. It does have my favourite Erin Doherty (see My Name Is Rachel Corrie) above so I have already taken the plunge to get my favourite seats but I might have gone too early.

Arcola Theatre

A slew of interesting stuff in the new season including the Grimeborn opera offerings, but the standout plays for me look like the revivals of Terry Johnson’s Insignificance (his new play Prism is also coming up at the Hampstead Theatre) and Howard Barker’s Judith: A Parting from the Body with Catherine Cusack in the lead.

Orange Tree Theatre

Everything in the new season looks interesting to me including productions of Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing, Elinor Cook’s Out of Love and Brad Birch’s Black Mountain, but I think the UK premiere of Poison by Dutch writer Lot Vekermans may turn out to be the best of the bunch.

National Theatre

I am seeing Angels in America shortly (always seem to end up near the end of the run) so review will follow. Common is still trundling on – I didn’t think it was too bad but others were less forgiving (Common at the National Theatre review ***). No official reviews for Mosquitoes by Lucy Kirkwood which kicked off recently but I am looking forward to this immensely. Unfortunately the run is sold out so queueing on the day is the only way in.

Coming up are Follies, the Sondheim musical with Imelda Staunton belting out the tunes, Oslo, the sold out Broadway transfer which already has a West End transfer, St George and the Dragon, which I would take a punt on as a “modern folk tale” (expect Brexit allusions) written by Rory Mullarkey and directed by Lyndsey Turner, and Beginning, which I am guessing is a relationship drama (I assume with twists) written by David Eldridge and directed by the inestimable Polly Findlay.

My highest hopes are reserved for Network, based on the mid 70s Oscar winning film satire on the media, to be adapted by Lee Hall, directed by Ivo van Hove and with Bryan Cranston in the lead. Now film adaptions and Ivo van Hove disappointed on the last outing (Obsession at the Barbican – Obsession at the Barbican Theatre review ***) but I still would take the risk. This isn’t going to work if it follows the minimal, psychological insight route so I am assuming it will look more like Mr van Hove’s relentlessly busy Shakespearean efforts. There are tickets left for later in the run.

Barbican Theatres

Mr van Hove will also be bringing his Tonnelgroep Amsterdam team to the Barbican for After the Rehearsal/Persona and the main theatre will also show all the RSC Roman Shakespeares transferring from Stratford. I am signed up for the marathon Smile On Us Lord (I hope he/she does) from Russia’s Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre though I recognise this might be a bit hardcore for most. I do think the Ninagawa company’s Macbeth will be worth the £50 though. This is a revival was the production that first brought this innovative visual feast to the “West” so it really is a “once in a lifetime” theatrical experience.