Walking from the gloomy, underlit National Theatre foyer into the Lyttleton auditorium was a real shock to the system – Inside it was light, bright and buzzing.
The vast stage for Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning film Network was re-imagined as a TV news studio with the cameras, floor and director’s gallery, plus a fully functioning restaurant where audience members ate a 5 course meal produced by the Foodwork kitchen- also on the stage. Waitresses and TV technicians were busily milling about and I wasn’t sure if I had actually missed the start of the play. When it began suddenly all my senses were instantly wired and I knew within 30 seconds that this was going to be good and that I was going to love it.
‘10-9-8-7-6-Cue Camera A-5-4-3-2-1…’ The TV news ended with a whimper and as the lights and cameras are switched off anchor man Howard Beale is told he was being let go due to the show’s low ratings. Disgruntled, during the next broadcast he says ‘Bullshit’ a couple of times and tells the viewers that he would be blowing his brains out during his forthcoming final broadcast. Bosses rage but ratings go up so Beale keeps his job and a young go-getting TV executive advances the idea that he should have his own ‘angry man’ show.
Beale’s outrage at society and the way his industry is going feeds in to the anger on the streets; these are troubled times for the US and he is echoing what the nation thinks. Before long the station has the No.1 show but their star is disintegrating mentally. His screen rants are unsettling those in power. Something will have to give.
Network could not be more relevant to our time. It tells of not believing TV’s ‘truth’ while we are in the midst of a ‘fake news’ debacle; we constantly hear of multinational media companies telling us just what they want us to know, and one character tells us that there are no nations with borders anymore, but that ‘the world is a business’.
With Jan Versweyveld’s set and Ivo van Hove’s direction, the action scurries around from TV studio to restaurant to meeting room, and can be viewed ‘live’ on any of the multitude of screens. Howard Beale even steps down into the stalls to make his speech more personal; at one point two of the characters who are secret lovers actually meet on the Southbank and a camera follows them as they head back into the theatre and into the ‘restaurant’ – all viewed via the screens.
Network is not perfect. Yes, there was a lot of shouting between TV execs, but that’s because they were placed so far apart to fill the huge stage; and sometimes you could hear actors speaking and not know where they were amongst the hordes of people on the stage, until you checked a screen and realised they were in the meeting office or the control room, sometimes sitting at a ‘restaurant’ table. In fact, I was not always sure who was an actor and who was serving dinner because it was all a bit too hectic at times. At one stage I noticed a screening of one of the three Ali v Norton fights which distracted me for at least two rounds. But this is a fantastic piece of theatre. Brian Cranston as Beale has us pinned to our seats during the long speeches he makes to camera, and standing in admiration at the end.
The US in the 70s was a country with home-grown terrorism, the rich getting richer, media lies and the overwhelming technological overload being the big news of the day, so Howard Beale’s mantra was ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore’. Forty years on Network’s resonance today is resolutely clear.
Network is on at The National Theatre, Southbank, SE1 until March 24th 2018. Times: 7.30pm, matinees 2pm. Admission: £15-£67. Phone: 020 7452 3000