In an era when digital media is in the palm of your hand and there are multiple sources of news to read or ignore, the concept that large portions of the nation tuned in to same news broadcasts at the same time can seem a little quaint.
Network, adapted by Lee Hall from the 1976 movie of the same name, is firmly rooted in that world of terrestrial television but there is nothing remotely quaint about it. Director Ivo van Hove, video designer Tal Yarden and scenic and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld powerfully employ some very 21st century multimedia techniques to ram home the contemporary relevance of how media can go completely mad.
At the center of this reworking of the movie is Bryan Cranston, in the role of washed-up TV news anchorman Howard Beale who is fired and then rehired in the first moments of the play. Cranston is mesmerizing as he has an on-screen meltdown and then descends into mania before being rehabilitated to messianic status by network executives who exploit his onscreen antics to reap advertising dollars. His musings are however, a searing critique of our age: “The thing we must be most afraid of is the destructive power of absolute beliefs – that we can know anything conclusively.”
All this plays out in a news studio, glass walled control room and an on-stage bar and restaurant. Audience members can sit on stage and be served a full dinner – it’s a premium ticket but be prepared for some up close and personal participation.
Practically all of the action is also relayed on multiple screens above and around the stage. There’s a near constant barrage of countdown clocks and images of archive TV commercials and other TV shows on the fictional UBS network throughout the play. The screens are also where we witness action that takes place off stage – in C-suite offices at the network and even on the street outside the theater. We see Beale’s broadcast in person as he sits at his anchor’s desk center stage and also in extreme close up on the oversize screen directly behind him. The studio cameras, the make-up team and the floor managers are all part of the drama – for news junkies it’s an adrenaline-fueled, backstage peak into the stress of live broadcasts. It’s also unusual to have such a large number of cast members who barely have any lines but are crucial to creating that frantic atmosphere.
When Beale establishes his catchphrase – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” the words blast in giant script behind him. It’s also the cue for one of the few production anachronisms that grated. On the projection walls, we see a proliferation of people filming themselves repeating the phrase apparently on their smartphones, in a viral sensation akin to the likes of the ice bucket phenomenon. In 1975, filming yourself would have been pretty difficult and broadcasting yourself impossible. If that sounds like quibbling, it’s just an observation of how inured we have become to having access to our own borderless audience.
Further, in this production, the ubiquity of the videos can at times feel like sensory overload. There were moments when it would have been fun to be given a breather to enjoy the retro seventies ads and TV show clips with their flicked hairdos, massive collars and hokey graphics without worrying about missing a crucial moment on stage.
Swirling around Beale’s breakdown are craven TV producers and executives bent on winning the ratings war. Tony Goldwyn, as the suave but morally conflicted friend of Howard’s Max, and Tatiana Maslany, as Diana the ruthless female producer dominating a man’s world, are the stand outs. But their roles are far less compelling and nuanced than Beale’s. There’s also a subplot which revolves around corporate machinations and private equity deals and a romantic liaison of stunningly titillating proportions thrown in. But all that tends to make you long to return Howard Beale and his mental unraveling.
The pace is revived with the morphing of Beale’s news broadcast into a TV show with a live audience. That’s us of course. Barzin Akhavan brings an authentic, zany energy to his role as the warm-up guy who tries to get the theater audience to chant. The theater audience clearly relished the opportunity to yell the catchphrase in unison. Also much to the audience’s delight, Beale eventually leaves his TV studio to mingle in the orchestra seats. Here the multi-media approach pays dividends. We all get a front row seat to his interaction with audience members, courtesy of a live cam that doesn’t miss a thing.
These days, our leader’s thoughts and propaganda arrive unfiltered on our smartphones in real time. In Network, the influence of television is the central theme but as a montage of recent presidents that is played after the curtain call not so subtly suggests – we are all responsible for asking if what we see on our screens can be believed. As Beale advises us, we should perhaps turn off our devices and “strike a blow for sanity.”