Clearly there are going to be those who think Belgian super-director Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 satirical film ‘Network’ is an almighty fucking mess.
And they may have a point. But the whole thing is so spectacularly staged – a garish, overwhelming storm of light and sound and video, powered by a stupendous performance from Bryan Cranston – that its flaws feel like minor items in this report.
Howard Beale (Cranston) is the stolidly reassuring anchor of the declining UBS Evening News. His ratings are in freefall, so his boss and best friend Max (Douglas Henshall) gives him the boot, a decision Howard seemingly accepts with craggy good grace. But when he goes on the air that night he declares his intention to kill himself on the following Monday’s broadcast, possibly in earnest, possibly as a morbid joke. His superiors are furious until the ratings come in, and suddenly Howard’s populist rants are the hottest thing on telly.
Adaptor Lee Hall’s treatment of the plot of ‘Network’ is messy. He minimises elements of the original story, but rather than eradicate them, they’re left as awkward nubs. They tend to cling to Michelle Dockery’s wasplike TV exec Diana. Her amoral lust for ratings rings true enough, but her affair with Max feels like an extraneous dollop of male fantasy, and her courtship of terrorist groups under-explored.
But Cranston delivers a monumental performance. His Howard is a man genuinely on the edge. There is something Lear-like about him, but bigger. He goes from assurance to boiling anger to decay. As he begins his iconic ‘mad as hell’ speech, he is a mumbling, weeping mess but he comes out the other side, settling into a messianic calm. He is entirely in the moment and entirely thrilling.
There will be those who can’t stand it, but I thought Jan Versweyveld’s set and lighting and Tal Yarden’s video design were stunning. The entire show is effectively staged as a live news broadcast, with a raft of black-clad camera-people projecting the action on to a giant screen. It has a crazed, hyper-real quality to it, amplified by Eric Sleichim’s percussive, responsive soundtrack and the weird quality of the out-of-sync screen and actors. There are echoes of Van Hove’s own ‘Roman Tragedies’ and the video-centric works of Katie Mitchell, but U2’s riotously postmodern Zoo TV tour is a more obvious progenitor.
It’s a giant, chaotic dance of man and video that amplifies a two-pronged message. One, that populism can be a volcanically destructive force that can obliterate the ‘bullshit’ that we call society with frightening speed. Two, that bullshit wins in the end: the essentially unaltered lecture Richard Cordery’s corporation boss Arthur gives Howard about how the nation state is dead and there are only companies now is almost freakishly prophetic about the ravages of globalisation.
Speaking of predictions: there is no pretending that Donald J Trump and his cable-news-begat rise doesn’t loom over the whole thing. He and Howard aren’t exact matches – for starters, Howard is too fundamentally decent, and can speak English properly – but ‘Network’ clearly predicted MAGA and all that, with an accuracy so impressive it almost feels on the nose. In what one might describe as a post-credits sequence, the connection is made explicit, but the populist touch of showing a compilation of each presidential inauguration from Ford to Trump is in-keeping: the press night audience cheered footage of Obama and booed his successor.
‘Network’ is a glowing, short-circuiting mess. But so is the world that it so viscerally anticipated. And Van Hove’s electrifying staging is like mainlining it all in one million-volt hit. Not going to take it any more? Unfortunately you already are.
‘Network’ is sold out, but new ‘rush’ tickets go on sale on Fridays at 1pm on the National Theatre website.