Network at the National Theatre
It seems that Ivo van Hove is moonlighting as a film studies student. The Belgian maestro’s latest screen-to-stage adaptation is Network, the 1976 cult classic that, fashion aside, could have been written yesterday.
News anchor Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston) has been fired. Howard Beale has had an onscreen nervous breakdown. Howard Beale is now the hottest property in television, a veritable “latter-day prophet”. Howard Beale is Bill O’Reilly. Howard Beale is Jon Stewart. Howard Beale is a Frankenstein’s monster of outrage, created by ratings-hungry producers and amoral execs. Howard Beale is the marketisation of subversion; an angry, different voice weaponised by capitalist forces. He’s Topshop selling feminist T-shirts, and McDonald’s using punk imagery to shill tasteless wraps.
It’s tempting to say that van Hove has done Network in the most obvious way possible – it’s a story about television, so let’s swamp the stage in screens. Let’s ensure the audience never forgets those black mirrors, for want of a better term, that now dominate our lives by making them watch half the play through them. The production almost ends up eating itself – almost.
Bizarrely, van Hove is at his absolute best when tackling the indelible images from the film. Unlike Ned Beatty’s fire and brimstone version, Richard Cordery turns CEO Arthur Jensen’s remarkable speech about a nation-less world made of companies into the assured, softly spoken word of a higher power. The ending turns away from the nasty satiric bite of the original, instead offering an earnest plea for humanity. And in the iconic, rousing “Mad as Hell” scene van Hove outstrips Sidney Lumet’s film, utilising homemade videos in a way that avoids being unbearably naff.
For all van Hove’s wizardry, the unshakeable quality of Network lies in Paddy Chayefsky’s script, here shepherded on stage by Lee Hall. It’s a scathing, prescient satire that managed, somehow, to bottle our current social and political moment over 40 years ago. However, Hall could have shown a bit less fidelity to the original text. The play really doesn’t need the relationship between Max and Diana; it’s a jarring, distracting (sometimes unpleasant) departure from the Beale stuff, especially since Douglas Henshall and Michelle Dockery don’t have any chemistry to speak of.
Anchoring this swirling, sensory overload is the magnetic Bryan Cranston. He never succumbs to a bug-eyed, “crazy” version of Beale; he is a sincere, broken man who desperately feels he has a message to deliver (and perhaps, through male hubris, thinks he is above the machine that eventually swallows him). It’s an incredibly touching performance, which isn’t a guarantee given the bombast of Beale’s monologues. Cranston seems to have taken his cue not from the infamous “mad as hell” rant, but something that comes just before: “I’m a human being, goddammit. My life has value”.
Photo: Jan Versweyveld
Network is at the National Theatre from 4th November 2017 until 24th March 2018. For further information or to book visit the National Theatre website here.