Posted by Laurence Green

Laurence Green reviews Ivo van Hove’s insightful news and entertainment satire, Network

NetworkA coruscating satire on news, entertainment and civil anger is how you could describe Ivo van Hove’s production of Network (National Lyttelton Auditorium), marking the stage premiere of the 1976 film, written by Paddy Chayefsky and adapted by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot).

Howard Beale has been the stolidly reassuring news anchor of the loss-making American television network UBS for the past 27 years but now his ratings are in freefall so his boss and best friend decides to put him out to pasture, a decision Howard accepts with craggy good grace. However, when he goes on air that night he declares he’ll kill himself during the following Monday’s broadcast. His superiors are initially appalled… until the ratings come in and suddenly Howard’s populist rants at a news cycle dominated by terror, rising unemployment and financial corruption are the hottest things on television.

Sidney Lumet’s original film seemed startlingly prescient about the noxious relationship between news media, commerce and public outrage. Yet, while Lee Hall’s adaptation is faithful and affectionate, it still feels very topical for an audience accustomed to clickbait, 24-hour news and social media trends.

Director Ivo van Hove has created an eye-opening and occasionally bewildering spectacle. An elaborate design by Jan Versweyveld transforms the stage into a bustling TV studio, with a bank of screens parading snippets of old advertisements – the swarming superlative video elements are by Tal Yarden. Diners line one side of the set and are served dishes from an on-stage kitchen, a quartet of musicians hover in the background, and various cameras relay close-ups of the cast at key moments, though I found it a bit annoying that the words spoken on the big screen were not always in sync with the actors speaking them on stage. Furthermore, I feel it was a mistake to show news executives Max and Diana on screen at one point walking along the South Bank chatting when the play is distinctively set in the US.

In the pivotal role of Beale, Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) exceeds expectations, delivering a monumental performance. His Howard is a man genuinely on the edge. There is something Lear-like about him, as he goes from assurance to anger to collapse. When he begins his Iconic ‘mad as hell’ speech, he is a mumbling, weeping mess, but comes out the other side setting into a messianic calm, emerging as a rare voice of sanity in a morally unhinged world. Strong support comes from Michelle Dockery as young, ambitious TV executive Diana, who goes all-out for ratings and sexual satisfaction alike, convincing, pitching her formal idea to capitalise on Beale’s new found connection to the masses and Douglas Henshall as Beale’s smooth friend and superior who is quick to fire him when circumstances change.

This is a show with a two-pronged message: firstly populisation can be a volcanic destructive force, and secondly globalism is ultimately more powerful than populism. Howard can change America but he can’t change the companies that own America. He is nevertheless a necessary voice for today.


Running at the Nation Theatre’s Lyttelton Auditorium until 24 March 2018

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