Monday 13 November 2017


National Theatre, Lyttelton
11th November, 2017, matinee
*Please note that this was a preview performance.

I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’

There’s a convincing article by Michael Harris in the programme for Network on the sensationalist media equivalent of fast food. Twitter, he uses as an example, is a culture where we melt sentiments into slogans, aim for Retweets and Favourites, and ‘consume “anger” as entertainment and each instance of “outrage” as an effective eye-grab’. We look out for our favourite commentators, or those we love to loathe, either agreeing or abhorring and sometimes not entirely sure why. We retweet the liberal elite as a badge of moral capital or, at most, to campaign and promote but to an audience probably already converted in a vacuum of anger. You see how easy it is to be cynical.

Network brings together artists from three very different areas of the arts: Lee Hall (writer of the screenplay for Billy Elliot and the plays The Pitmen Painters and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour) constantly shows in his work that theatre ‘should not be the exclusive property of a privileged elite’ (Hytner 2017, p.96); Ivo Van Hove is the one of the leading names of European theatre in his aesthetics and practices; and Bryan Cranston is from the world of Hollywood and, perhaps more notably, multi-award winning TV drama Breaking Bad. Together, in this adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film, they bring together different and new audiences to see one of the most theatrical and technical coups of this year. To summarise the plot quickly, when UBS news anchor-man Howard Beale loses his job because of poor ratings he goes on air and promises that he’ll blow his brains out on live TV. After briefly dragging him off air, the network decide that Beale madly ranting about what grinds his gears will boost ratings, crucial now that the news branch has merged with the rest of the network and must make a profit. But when he starts calling bullshit over matters which could jeopardise the network and its ratings, the TV executives lock horns over whether to keep him on the air.

Jan Versweyveld’s design makes the Lyttelton’s stage look as vast as did for Angels in America. As the audience take their seats, to the right of the stage we see the onstage diners, the waiting staff and the kitchen pass. The centre of the stage is taken up with the studio floor and a screen with live feeds from roaming camera operators. On the left is a dressing area space and a glass box which contains the gallery. There’s a ubiquity of bright lights, shiny floors and screens, apart from in the Foodwork restaurant which is all about dimly lit tables and cosy benches.

Van Hove creates the well-ordered chaos and buzz of a TV newsroom moments before going live to the nation. Producers, cameramen, secretaries, voice over artists, directors and Beale can be seen wandering about, preparing for the broadcast which is being marked by a countdown at the top of the set. As the final minute to live counts down, the buzz of the newsroom is like mission control, and Bryan Cranston’s Howard Beale is like the astronaut about to take off in the shuttle, or a calm in the centre of the storm. He coolly sits down at his desk, a whirlwind of makeup artists, soundmen and crew members surrounding him, adjusts his papers and looks up at the camera. This is testament to Van Hove’s control over all aspects of his production. I found myself occasionally watching Cranston a few meters away do his pieces to camera before looking at the screen. I looked back and Cranston wasn’t on the stage anymore. There are couple of bits of simple stage trickery like this which are effectively used, particularly at the play’s bloody end. Elsewhere, the live video editing is timed to a tee. From Howard to the gallery and back again, the opening scenes are perfectly orchestrated.

Cranston is genius casting. He’s an actor who is more than comfortable and experienced in front of the camera but who can also act to the back of the Lyttelton without feeling like his performance is being compromising. To camera, he carries a deadpan expression, a serious voice, the occasional twitch or frown, and utter professionalism (to begin with). Later, he turns into a showman, confidently playing to and amongst the audience to share the prophecies with which he is apparently imbued. We feel it too. A warm up man encourages us to join in with the mantra ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ and applaud rapturously. Although the rant seems like easy, naïve, bubble-gum politics, I couldn’t deny the sheer feeling of excitement when Beale and the station crew were chanting the slogan. Elsewhere, Michelle Dockery gets the best lines as young TV exec Diana Christensen. Her rhetoric is mostly made up of soundbite-like gobbets and alliteration: she eventually comes to berate Beale’s spew of ‘dehumanisation and dying democracy’. She matches the sharp witted sassiness and ruthlessness of Faye Dunaway in the film and Rene Russo in Nightcrawler (2014) but she never overplays her role and you can fully see why Max Schumaker would find her so beguiling despite her seeming unfeeling.

Hall has remained faithful to the screenplay. In fact if he has made additions to the script, all the memorable lines come from Chayefsky’s film. I suppose what he has done is streamlined the screenplay into a text which efficiently keeps all the best bits of the film’s dialogue. By giving some of Max Schumaker’s (Howard’s best friend and director) lines to Howard, Hall has made Howard more the protagonist, rather than the oddball plaything of the TV executives’ conflict. The meta bits work best: a secretary going through some script pitches that all have the same stock characters in different job titles (the bolshie, intelligent, beautiful young woman versus the maverick older mentor figure, etcetera) still probably rings true for a lot of TV dramas today. Douglas Henshall’s Schumaker, who has a fling with Christensen, is also very good. I thought that his and his wife’s (Caroline Faber) frankness over his mid-life crisis was quite affecting:

Here we are going through the obligatory middle-of-Act-Two scorned wife throws peccant husband out scene. But, no fear, I'll come back home in the end.  All [Christensen’s] plot outlines have me leaving her and returning to you because the audience won't buy a rejection of the happy American family.

They recognise that, to Christensen, there is an overarching obsession with plot arcs, happy endings and audience ratings that extend into real life.

Technically it’s an amazingly smooth production, thanks to the unswerving company and Tal Yarden’s video design. A particular coup is where Dockery and Henshall start a scene live on the South Bank, the camera following them walking from the river, into the National and onto the Lyttelton stage. Some of the production, perhaps including this bit, feels excessive. The onstage restaurant might add to the idea that we feed on such tabloid TV. Spatially it also adds an interesting dynamic during the restaurant scenes because the diners become background artists as well as simply spectators (although they’re always more than simply audience members as our gaze occasionally falls on what they’re being served or what the kitchen staff are doing). Yet the main thought I had regarding Foodwork was that it’s a nice little side earner. The post-encore video compilation of the swearing-in from US Presidents’ inaugurations from the 1970s onwards also feels tagged on, although it’s worth it for the audience reactions to Obama and Trump.

Through this 1970s’ American stage world which channels a lot of contemporary anger, we can draw parallels to a culture of binary politics and holier-than-thou, eye-grabbing, satiating headlines in digestible 140 (nay, 280) characters. And at its heart Network features a superbly pitched performance with the weight of a Shakespearean tragic hero from Bryan Cranston, delivering one of the most watchable performances of the year.

Network plays at the National Theatre until 24th March, 2018

A scene from Network. Bryan Cranston (centre) and company. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

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