LONDON — If there were such a thing as an instant ulcer, then the first five minutes of the National Theater’s production of “Network,” which opened here on Monday night, would be guaranteed to give you one. This is meant as high praise.
The opening scene of this convulsive, immersive adaptation of the 1976 movie about how television hijacked reality is a bravura exercise in torturously applied pressure. Directed by Ivo van Hove and starring a fabulous Bryan Cranston in a state of radioactive meltdown, “Network” may be set in the New York of four decades ago, but as you watch the middle-aged newscaster, Howard Beale (Mr. Cranston), preparing for his nightly television appearance, you feel the overwhelming anxiety of a toxic 21st-century day at the office.
You know, one of those mornings when you’ve arrived late and cranky, and everyone and everything in your technology-driven workplace seems out to get you.
Giant numbers, counting down the seconds before airtime, are projected onto the walls. Functionaries and technicians gather around Beale like crows to carrion. And images — a churning throng of visions, silly and somber, of a world in tumult — keep multiplying all around you, like some superbug breed of amoebae.
This is theater as assault and battery, and like many of the best current examples of that genre, it’s only an amplification of what you regularly experience in an age when external stimuli outstrip the human ability to process them. It’s all enough to make a beleaguered body feel — and if you know your “Network,” you can finish this sentence — as mad as hell.Continue reading the main story
Mr. van Hove, the visionary international director who set Broadway shivering with his hyper-intense productions of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” and “The Crucible,” is an artist who thinks with his gut. And in collaboration with the designer Jan Versweyveld, his longtime partner in aesthetic demolition, he has found vivid, viscera-tugging stage equivalents for the anger and displacement that infused a wild-eyed movie now regarded by many as prophecy.
That’s the cinematic satire that took home a clutch of Oscars in 1977 for telling Americans that their souls were being cannibalized by big television and the bigger corporations behind it. Directed with high bombast by Sidney Lumet, with a fulminating script by Paddy Chayefsky, “Network” tapped into the populist rage of a post-Nixon society, suspicious of all authority and stressed to the end of its tether.
It seems safe to say that such emotions are very much with us again, if they ever really went away. And when it’s in sensory attack mode (as opposed to podium lecture mode), this revamped “Network,” piously adapted from Chayefsky’s screenplay by Lee Hall, feels as pertinent to our time as it did to its own.
True, the monster television that Chayefsky condemned, in which minds were numbed and massaged through a central household set, looks kind of puny these days. Most homes are now filled with multiple screens, which record and transmit as well as receive images, turning daily existence into one big reality show.
But without resorting to obvious technological anachronisms, Mr. van Hove and Mr. Versweyveld have created a world of invasive lenses that scramble the lines between public and private, between thought and deed. It’s not just what happens on sound stages that’s magnified into splintered simulcast images. (Tal Yarden is the feverishly imaginative video designer.)
What happens behind the scenes is also captured, flattened and projected. That includes activities in broadcast control rooms, offices, bedrooms, boardrooms and even a restaurant where a pair of adulterous lovers conduct a cool quickie in full view of their fellow diners.
Those voyeurs at the next table, by the way, could well be you, as this production offers ticket buyers the option of dining onstage during the performance. Such inclusiveness is just another way of reminding us that we’re all complicit in this landscape of nonstop surveillance. (The same notion is underscored, more predictably, when a TV warm-up man tries to work the audience into a rabid froth.)
As Beale, the aging anchorman whose onscreen nervous breakdown turns him into a ratings sensation (played on screen by Peter Finch), Mr. Cranston (“Breaking Bad” on television, “All the Way” on Broadway) is the perfect stark raving center for this meticulously calibrated mayhem.
From the first words Beale utters, he projects a lifetime of assumed gravitas now shading into burnout. When he’s reborn as an evangelist of the airwaves — urging his public to open their windows and scream they’re not going to take it anymore — he’s the avenging phoenix that would inevitably rise from such ashes.
Watching him romancing the cameras, and seeing him transformed into an army of simulcast selves, is one of this production’s great, disorienting pleasures. If only he didn’t have to sermonize so much.
I know, I know. Beale’s jeremiads are what make him a star. But like the movie, this “Network” often eclipses character with its bloviating didacticism. And whenever there’s a big speech to be made — by Beale, or his honorable best friend, Max Schumacher (Douglas Henshall), or the show’s various embodiments of institutional evil — the production slows down and e-nun-ci-ates with organ music (really) as underscoring.
There is a large supporting cast, but as individuals they don’t register very convincingly. Mr. Henshall is just fine as a weary producer of fraying integrity who falls for a beautiful young co-worker, Diana Christensen, who is (poor thing) television incarnate.
She is played by Michelle Dockery, a fine actress of stage (“Pygmalion”) and television (“Downton Abbey”). But her generically eager performance here pales next to memories of Faye Dunaway’s audaciously stylized onscreen interpretation.
Caroline Faber has the thankless role (and excruciating dialogue) of Schumacher’s betrayed wife. Tunji Kasim and Richard Cordery are serviceable as the hot and cold incarnations of bureaucratic monstrosity.
In an introduction to the script, Mr. Hall writes that there’s scarcely a word in it that isn’t Chayefsky’s. I do wish he’d been less reverent, since many of those words now sound tin-eared and melodramatic. (I found myself thinking that the show might have been better if it had been performed in Dutch by Mr. van Hove’s Toneelgroep Amsterdam troupe.)
It’s when all the technological bells and whistles are operating that this “Network” thrills, even as it agonizes. Mr. Cordery’s big boss figure may insist that it’s the message, not the medium, that ultimately prevails. But in this case, stagecraft nearly always trumps script in translating a fabled movie from the past into a palpable, searing present.Continue reading the main story