Dutch theatre director Ivo van Hove is nothing if not ambitious. This year alone he’s had Jude Law running on a treadmill as he delivered his lines in Obsession and filled the Barbican’s stage with water for his outstanding Persona.
But Network, based on the 1976 satirical film of the same name, is on a whole other level. For the National Theatre’s biggest show since Angels in America, van Hove has been handed seemingly unlimited resources, which he expends exploring the limits of what can be classified as “theatre”.
There is a working kitchen at the rear of the stage, serving food and drinks to a section of the audience seated at lounge tables. There are filmed sections that take the action to the Southbank and back. There’s an MC encouraging audience participation. There’s live and pre-recorded and archive footage beamed onto screens that frame the vast, open-plan stage. It’s all so alive with people and movement that the theme of nervous exhaustion comes across even before the play’s troubled protagonist promises to blow his brains out on the nightly news.
Bryan Cranston is the anchor – both literal and metaphorical – holding the whole thing together. It begins with his veteran newsreader, Howard Beale, being informed of his dismissal due to the show’s terrible ratings, which are threatening to drag the entire network down. He doesn’t take it well, calling out the “bullshit” of American society and making his grizzly pledge before being dragged kicking and screaming from the studio, much to the amusement of audiences across the country.
His career appears to be over until a ballsy lifestyle journalist (Michelle Dockery) spots the subsequent ratings spike and decides that Howard Beale may be the best thing that’s ever happened to the channel. “The American people want someone to articulate their rage,” she reasons, rebranding Beale as a latter-day prophet and giving him free rein to unravel in front of an increasingly large audience share.
What was relatively far-fetched satire in 1976 veers frighteningly close to reality in 2017. The format of the show is less dystopian future than it is prime-time Fox News. Beale’s state-of-the-nation monologues – including his mantra “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” – recall the cynical, self-righteous anger of tinfoil hat-wearing shock-jock Alex Jones.
Abuse of power in the pursuit of profit is a recurring theme. Beale’s deteriorating mental health – he ends up wandering around the studio in his boxer shorts – is milked for all it’s worth by his studio executives, and by turn, the faceless anger of the American people is exploited in the pursuit of ratings dollars. In a world where Donald Trump can become President by stoking this exact anger among the disillusioned working classes, Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 script seems uncannily prescient (the Trump parallel is underscored by a post-curtain-call video, the genealogy of which is closer to a Marvel blockbuster than traditional theatre).
Cranston returns to the form that made him a global name as Breaking Bad’s Walter White, drawing upon the same unstable energy that comes from being perpetually on the brink of utter catastrophe. He’s brilliantly supported by the ensemble cast of media executives, whose private lives are drawn ever closer to the black hole at the heart of this broken man.
There are times when Network becomes a little exhausting, with half a dozen things vying for your attention at any given moment, gradually sapping your brain power, which is itself a neat metaphor for television news. As the play progresses it appears to jump in time from the 70s to the present, becoming ever more abstract and fractured. It really is like nothing I’ve seen before, but would very much like to see again.