Friday, 19 January 2018

REVIEW: Network at the National Theatre



The 1976 Oscar winning film Network was made at a time when the leading TV channels dominated the media landscape in America and in Britain delivering huge audiences and the leading two or three networks battled each other for audience share to drive advertising income. The management poured over the audience shares and overnight ratings and judged the programme producers on those audiences. This new play adapted from the film by Lee Hall , is based firmly in the studios of one of these networks and set in September and October 1975 but much of the dialogue points clearly at the new multimedia world of today , the arguments about fake news and the public's passionate engagement through social media. 

As the news this week is dominated by the collapse of Carillon, the central background to the play is the ownership of UBS network by the CCA a large business conglomerate, its drive for profits and a potential change of ownership. Howard Beale is the main news anchor of UBS, the failing channel but his announcement that he will blow his brains out on the live news show in two weeks time prompts a surge in ratings. This brings into sharp focus the clash between traditional impartial presentation by a news cost department which has become stale and the sensationalised showbiz style of a function driven by appealing to audiences and being a profit centre. Howard Beale becomes the pawn in this business game.

Bryan Cranston is extraordinary as Howard Beale from his first appearance announcing his retirement, through his call as an angry prophet for public support against passive news by shouting "I am as mad as hell, and I am not going to take it anymore" and his subsequent mental breakdown, he is centre stage and carries the show. His bravado on screen performances contrasts with his quietly spoken conversations with his long time associate, Max Schumacher played by Douglas Henshall who is the only one genuinely concerned for his colleague.

What makes this production so wonderful and unique is the creative vision of director Ivo Van Howe and the design by Jan Versweyveld who have created an incredibly real looking TV studio and restaurant in which most of the action is set. As an audience member on stage we enjoyed a five course menu of butternut squash, crab cocktail, rib bourguignon, sorbet and Black Forest gateau while the show progressed. So when Beale meets Schumacher at the bar we eavesdrop their conversation as it is projected onto the main screen for the audience and then later when Diana Christensen, played by Michelle Dockery, straddles Schumacher at the next table, we are the embarrassed fellow diners! It is the ultimate immersive theatre experience but it is surprising how real it feels and those on stage are probably less distracted than the audience by the huge quantity of video projection on stage throughout. 

Not all the ideas work. It feels odd when we see Christensen and Schumacher walking outside the National theatre clearly in 2018 via a live projection or when Beale pushes along a row in the auditorium and settles between two audience members. However these are small criticisms of what is an inventive, exciting and thought provoking production.

Beale argues that there is no democracy, that corporates like IBM are the nations of the day (1975) and that we should be afraid of the destructive power of absolute beliefs. We don't really need the video epilogue of US presidential inaugurations since that time to point up the parallels with today where Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and Google are huge global organisations influencing our lives so much more than the old TV networks and mobilising social reaction. A landscape where some of the world's politicians use social media to manipulate opinion without the impartiality that guided the network news editors of seventies and eighties TV networks.

The National has produced a brilliant piece of creative thought provoking theatre and I recommend checking daily for returns to catch it while you can.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★★★
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