Network is about an ageing news anchor getting mad.
Told he is being given the sack, Howard Beale calmly announces during the ensuing broadcast that he intends to kill himself on air.
He becomes a sensation. Calling the news “bullshit” on the news is a hit.
“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” is his heartfelt cry.
Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 movie satire on American TV is affectionate and powerful. The director, Ivo van Hove, creates a world of constantly roving cameras, shine and noise.
Everywhere here is motion, confusion, distraction.
It can be hard to know where to look, and that’s the point—this is a merciless vision of the way media fragments our attention.
The fragmented stage, the music and audience members paying extra to eat on stage all add to the mix. This and the Spinal Tap “turn the lights up on the audience” moment poke at the comfort of the comfortable theatre goer. But perhaps not enough.
How does anything get a hearing in the crowded fragmented noise of the media? Is it by speaking truth by being louder, or simply sensational?
Is Beale a threat to, or an opportunity for, the establishment? When his anger turns to Arab money taking over the US, who gains?
For all this to work it needs a powerful centre. Bryan Cranston’s performance is dazzling.
He’s powerful, intriguing and becomes the focus for an alternative—for the real and fictional audience—despite the machinations of the Network.
Cranston’s performance perhaps focuses on the “I’m a human being, goddammit. My life has value” part of the character. And it is no bad thing for that.
Michelle Dockery as Diana gives an impressive performance battling against the everyday stereotypes—of film and play—of a promotion-hungry woman looking for affairs with older bosses. Douglas Henshall is also good as Max Schumacher, who is Beale’s best friend and boss. Their sub plot is a pointedly cliched counterweight to the main narrative.
When the contemporary notes in the production are hints they work.
When they are overt, such as the daft post-ovation US presidential clips, they help the audience back into their comfort zone.
The production downplays the film’s exploitation of a terrorist atrocity as a ratings opportunity, which doesn’t help the climax make sense.
The production may be a bit less radical than it thinks it is— but it’s a genuinely fine piece of theatre with brilliant outstanding performances.