Speaking about his screenplay for the 1976 film Network, the writer Paddy Chayefsky once observed: “People say to me, ‘Jesus, you moved into some pretty surreal stuff.’ And I say, ‘No, I still write realistic stuff. It’s the world that’s turned into a satire.'” Imagine what he would have made of the world 40 years later. In fact, a work that was brilliantly perceptive in the 1970s, particularly about the corrupting influence of television, now seems searingly prescient.
Network could have been written for the age of Trump and Twitter, reality TV and fake news; even its title could be custom tweaked, for a time when the obsession with networking has driven real communication between people into the dust.
The piece, then, is ripe for revisiting. At the same time there’s an immediate irony about this adaptation from cinema to stage. With its dialogue-heavy scenes, dearth of exteriors and high pitch of hysteria, there’s a distinctly theatrical feel about Sidney Lumet’s film. Yet writer Lee Hall’s adaptation of Chayefsky’s screenplay is in the hands of a theater director whose approach owes much to cinema, and who this year in London has already been responsible for adaptations of Visconti and Bergman. The resulting play feels more cinematic than its source.
With Network, Ivo van Hove delivers his most dazzling London production since A View from the Bridge, which transferred to Broadway and won the Belgian director a Tony Award. It’s bold, intelligent, funny, with a conceptual and technical swagger that is sometimes quite breathtaking. It’s also graced by another stealthily scintillating turn from Bryan Cranston, making his U.K. theater debut as Howard Beale, the network news anchor whose mental breakdown is turned into a form of reality TV (just one example of Chayefsky’s clairvoyance) in a cynical assault on ratings.
Jan Versweyveld’s set impresses long before the play proper begins, as a vibrant, intricately detailed work of performance art.
The National Theatre’s generous Lyttelton stage is used to its full potential, bursting with sleek modern design and technology: stage left, a restaurant, with what appears to be a functioning open kitchen to the rear, in which members of the audience are actually being served food as they wait for the play to commence; stage right, the TV studio’s production booth, behind glass, and to the rear of that a makeup room, where actors can be seen having their final touches applied. In between is the studio floor, over which hangs a giant screen – and high above the screen a bank of people, looming like a galactic game show jury, or DJs, but in reality probably orchestrating elements of the technological wizardry that will take place over the next two hours.
Cranston/Beale is among those having his makeup applied, as producers are preparing for the news broadcast. Then one of them counts down to air — and the beginning of the play.
A TV news veteran, Beale has just been sacked, due to poor ratings, and is seeing out his notice. After an item about kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, he takes time out from the news to calmly inform viewers that in a week’s time he will kill himself, live on national TV.
Interestingly, no one of his colleagues seems to wonder whether he means it. At first, they simply want him out the door. Then ambitious executive Diane Christensen (Michelle Dockery) forcefully argues that the network has been afforded a golden opportunity: an “angry prophet, denouncing the hypocrisy of our times,” who is chiming with the disillusion and anger of the American public. She predicts a ratings bonanza.
Poor old Howard is happy to play along, if it keeps him on air. And soon his outspoken anger about the ills of the world — with the mantra, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” — turns him into a TV superstar. But while Christensen dreams of her “30 share and a 20 rating,” and corporate heavy Frank Hackett (an impressive Tunji Kasim) gleefully sees the network make a profit for the first time in five years, their new toy is hearing voices in the middle of the night, instructing him on the subject of his rants. “Why me?” he asks. “Because you’re on TV, dummy.”
Beale’s old chum and fellow journalistic purist (nay, dinosaur) Max Schumacher (Douglas Henshall) is the only one concerned about the man’s mental health. But Schumacher is soon sacked himself, and in any case has his own problems in pursuit of a doomed love affair with Christensen, the woman who has taken his show. It’s only when Beale’s narrative switches from recession, crime, the wealth gap and the Russians (the last earning a special laugh from the audience) to the corporations running America — his own included — that the bosses start to rethink his future.
In the ’70s, Chayefsky was warning of the omnipresence of television, with all its commercialized, dumbing-down side effects. Van Hove and his team make that manifest by their multidimensional staging, in such a way that allows for the natural extrapolation that TV has been overtaken by the Internet and social media.
As Beale broadcasts his live news shows, onstage cameras — either studio cameras or roving, handheld ones — are seen to record them. The image is projected simultaneously onto the large screen; sometimes this is clearly a live feed, sometimes prerecorded and out of synch with the onstage Beale, the disjunction usually used to reveal his fracturing state of mind.
At the same time, conversations that take place between characters in the restaurant, or production booth, or at the rear of the stage are also projected onto the screen live; as producers go crazy over Beale’s latest stunt, the handheld captures their animation in dynamically framed shots. At times the screen is occupied by multiple images, an assembly of ’70s TV advertisements, film clips, cartoons, with even this bank of historical images suddenly including a live one, from the stage — life turning to shared, consumed history in a fraction of a second.
The impression given is that no moment is wholly personal, or intimate; everything is projected, aired, shared. Real news, real life become lost in the mix.
Such a sophisticated level of multimedia choreography on a stage is simply extraordinary; the camera operators alone deserve some kind of award. The high point is Beale’s “mad as hell” monologue, when Cranston’s face becomes multiplied onscreen, the actor’s mesmerizing Jeremiah act and the visual onslaught combining to electrifying effect.
The result is thrilling, but also fuels the narrative. Thematically, what’s most striking about the piece is the way in which the media is seen to serve populist agendas. There was no need to bring Chayefsky’s screenplay out of its original period, for the resonances can’t be missed. When Beale demonizes the Arab world — at that time, it was about oil — we think of Islamophobic rhetoric today; when a character questions the sense of “putting a manifestly irresponsible man on TV,” Trump immediately comes to mind.
There are a few things to regret. The onstage diners are a gimmick too far and quickly prove a distraction. It’s a shame that Hall (Billy Elliot, War Horse) has chosen to lose the Ecumenical Liberation Army, the revolutionary terrorists who were so much fun in the film. Conversely, he’s retained the film’s weakest element, the frankly unbelievable relationship between Schumacher and Christensen. Onscreen, William Holden and Faye Dunaway could do nothing about the implausible age gap, but at least offered some high-class jousting; Henshall and Dockery are closer in age but simply don’t have the charisma; in truth, they don’t register that strongly in any part of the proceedings.
The late Peter Finch won a posthumous Oscar for his turn as Beale. Cranston is a perfect fit for the role, charting the difficult course from has-been to laughing stock to national celebrity — while maintaining the undercurrent of creeping derangement — with his usual acumen and charm, and a face that he plays like a Stradivarius.
It’s not a flashy performance, but it’s highly entertaining — combustible when it needs to be, and persuasive. Anyone familiar with Walter White will chuckle as the desperate newscaster is reduced to his underwear. But this Beale is a little more dapper than Finch’s in the later stages, where he adopts the studied sheen of a TV product; you’d think Cranston had been moonlighting as a game-show host, he’s so convincing.
And it’s Cranston, courtesy of a theatrical magic trick, who delivers one of Hall’s few noticeable embellishments, a coda that warns of “the destructive power of absolute beliefs” and squarely lands the play in the here and now. Network is not just a reiteration of a great satire, but a timely, horribly relevant wake-up call, lest the networked world starts to truly lose track of what’s real, and what’s not.
Photos: Jan Versweyveld
This review first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter