Film techniques are increasingly becoming part of the language used by modern theatre-makers to tell their stories, and your view of that will largely depend on how traditional you like your theatre. A year ago, Robert Icke staged a slick and movie-like interpretation of George Simenon’s novel The Red Barn at the National Theatre, swiftly followed by a vibrant Hamlet with newsreels and close-ups at The Almeida. Where once the two arts would exchange little more than personnel, now cinematic styles, approaches, and particularly the technology of film is one of the ways directors are choosing to engage audiences and reimagine well known plays.
Ivo van Hove has been attempting to shake-up British theatre for some years, presenting stark and emotionally-charged versions of the classics including A View from the Bridge and Hedda Gabler. Earlier this year, his production of Obsession with Jude Law at the Barbican introduced more radical techniques including large screens with projected imagery that proved to be love-it or loath-it marmite for the established critical press. His latest venture at the National will surely be the same, bringing theatre and film closer together by staging Network, based on the 1976 Paddy Chayesfsky film of the same name.
With van Hove’s work in general, I’m firmly in the love-it camp, and while the stories themselves don’t always stand up to scrutiny as Obsession proved, his innovative interpretations feel like a breath of fresh air – just watching his creations unfold in unexpected and inventive ways makes for a fascinating and engaging night at the theatre. And Network is equally enthralling, interpreting a rather strange story in a slick, fast-moving production that manages to reveal the media’s rather shallow relationship with truth and makes profound statements about the concept of collective action, all the while being true to its original movie roots.
Newscaster Howard Beale is being pushed into retirement by the network who want a younger face on screen, so a week before his final broadcast the disparaged Beale reveals he will shoot himself live on air. Initially outraged by this PR disaster, his bosses try to pull him off the air immediately, but that’s until ambitious new TV executive Diana Christensen senses an opportunity to produce a different kind of news show. With Beale back on the air with a no holds barred show, the network discovers giving the people what they want may help the ratings, but with truth and integrity at stake, the cost may be more than they bargained for.
Van Hove directs with a deliberate sense of controlled chaos with scenes running seamlessly into one another, conveying the frantic sense of a busy newsroom and the fast-paced lives of those within it. But van Hove also knows when to insert moments of stillness, reflection and consideration, slowing-down scenes to give Howard the opportunity to connect directly with the audience in his political monologues or in moments of enlightenment when he discusses the nature of the world with the Chairman of his network.
Drawing directly from the film and mirroring the work of companies such as Complicité, van Hove merges traditional UK and European styles of theatre, an increasingly presence in his work over the past few years. The stage is dominated by a multi-purpose giant screen centre-stage that becomes integral to the action as both a representation of the TV screen that Howard appears on, frequently showing adverts in the background of the action, and as a place to project individual close-up scenes filmed by roving cameras to capture intense interactions taking place at the back of the vast Lyttleton stage cutting between the two actors in the style of the film.
And it works very effectively, giving a sense of the intimacy that cinema creates while establishing a story set in a changing age of newscasting, where entertainment began to trump merely purveying the truth. For the second time this season, new shows are asking audiences to think about a turning point in media history and how it has subsequently shaped the way information is now conveyed to us. And, just as Ink demonstrated how pandering to popular expectation created an insatiable demand for increasingly outrageous content, Network also shows how a chance decision unleashes a Frankenstein’s monster which the company rapidly loses control of.
Network may be big, brash and spectacular to look at, but there are also strong messages about the role of journalists in presenting the news, encouraging the audience to consider where the line between entertainment and information should exist. ‘Television is not real’, is a constant refrain with calls from the increasingly troubled Howard for his viewers to turn off their sets and take collective positive action to make the world better. And this couldn’t feel more timely, asking whether we should just be passive receptors of news or participate in mass protest to take on the big power of governments and multinational corporations – “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore” becoming the rallying call for change.
Bryan Cranston gives a layered and controlled central performance as Howard, managing the complex changes in pitch and purpose that affect the character as the story unfolds. Cranston is convincing throughout, first bringing a gravitas and confidence to Howard’s position as a well-respected anchor man before introducing a touch of betrayal, being pushed out after years of working for the network. The ensuing drama resulting from his threat to commit suicide on air is well managed by Cranston who builds a believable sense of mania and collapse that eventually reaches a plateau of calm certainty. Frequently accused of making a fool of himself by colleagues in the industry, Cranston’s Howard is always sure of what he’s saying, and, importantly, shows how the mythical audience would be captivated by his prophet-like charisma.
In a strong supporting role, Michelle Dockery returns to the stage as ambitious TV executive Diana who sees an opportunity to exploit Howard’s mental state to manipulate the ratings and turn his ailing news show into a different kind of hit. As calmly composed as she is emotionally ruthless, Dockery gives Diana a sense of certainty about herself, convinced her view is the right one with an enthusiasm for it that brings others round to her way of thinking. We note that Diana’s personal life is conducted with the efficiency she brings to television producing, and, while she is entirely driven by work, the coldness of her business-like approach starts to become quite merciless as the show concludes.
There are strong supporting performances for Tunji Kasim as network man Frank Hackett, snapping at the heels of the older generation with his plan to reorganise the entire company, bringing the news division under the control of regular programming. Like Diana, Hackett works to consolidate his power throughout the show, but Kasim gives him an edge of uncertainty, fearful of using Howard’s instability in case it rebounds on his precious network.
Douglas Henshall brings depth to the pivotal role of Max Schumacher, head of news and Howard’s best friend, who also faces potential redundancy along with his anchor man and feels overwhelmed by the ambition of his younger colleagues. As his personal life implodes, Henshall’s Max tries to stand by his old friend but is swallowed-up by the monster they unleash, a reminder of normalcy amidst it all. Ian Drysdale as the Director of the network is calm and unruffled as the figurehead sitting above the trivialities below him. Given an almost God-like appearance, Drysdale serenely delivers one of the most chilling speeches about the fiction of nationality, and how multinational corporations really control the mind.
Running for two hours without an interval, van Hove’s direction ensures scenes follow swiftly, utilising the full stage while using engaging technological interventions to add to the audience’s view of events, and reinforce Network’s origins. With events moving so quickly and no prior knowledge of the structure of American television, it’s not always possible to grasp the relationship between the various layers of management or the technical discussions of ratings and market share, but you do get the gist. There are also a couple of places where Howard’s character seems to inexplicably transform between scenes – at one point a virtual wreck wandering into the studio in his dressing gown and ranting, but when we next see him he’s back in an expensive suit speaking almost rationally – and those slight leaps aren’t fully clarified, but don’t really detract from an engaging evening.
van Hove’s productions are always fascinating with a vision that feels refreshing and challenging, again bringing intimacy to the vast Lyttleton stage, which in Jan Versweyveld’s striking set design houses a control booth, the dressing room, a large news studio and a restaurant filled with audience members (an addition that adds little to the production however). Utilising Tal Yarden’s video, and with portable cameras that even allow Dockery and Henshall to film a scene live out on the Southbank and walk back into the National and straight onto the stage, Network merges the production’s film roots with the live reaction shots of broadcast news to create a show that asks the audience to think about the boundary between reality and television, and how collective action might finally make the political changes we want to see.
Network is at the National Theatre until 24 March and is sold-out but tickets are available as part of the £20 Friday Rush scheme at 1pm each week. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1