Business As Usual in the NT’s Take on ‘Network’

Eerily relevant in a time where the reliability of the news is as equally up for discussion as the news itself, Ivo Van Hove’s mighty stage adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning Network (1974) sees the plastic insanity of the corporate world epitomised in a narrative of truth versus profit. With the almost limitless potential of the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, and the huge name of Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) as leading role Howard Beale, there was no doubting the immensity of this show.

Network’s immediate appeal lies in Jal Versweyveld and Tal Yardens’ complex, technology-ridden set. The countless monitors, cameras and bright lights that frame Howard as he robotically reads the news itemise the TV studio’s falseness from the outset of the play; this is an environment of meticulous planning and mechanic order, a space where undisciplined rage is intensely out of place. Yarden’s use of video amplifies the studio’s misrepresentation through potent moments of ambiguity: assumedly-live shots become disembodied from the action onstage, and a single cut of two characters entering the theatre from outside on the Southbank blurs the boundaries between pre-recorded material and live action. Just like real news, what’s real and what’s been formulated are perplexingly intertwined.

The glossy, corporate fakeness of Union Broadcasting System’s evening news channel swells as we meet the station’s workaholic Head of Programming, Diana Christensen (Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey). Dockery channels the rubbery soul of capitalist obsession through her non-specific American accent and ever efficient, machine-like pace. Consumed by her drive to exploit Howard’s madness as a money-making tool for UBS, her emotionless drive summarises extreme corporate inhumanity.

But, of course, the main event: Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale, the dull news reader turned ‘latter day prophet’ is a voice of truth, anger, but most of all humanity in the mechanic world of UBS. Shattering the bleak insensitivity of the news with his outrage that everything is all just ‘bullshit’, Cranston captures human frustration, anger and powerlessness to current affairs, consummating this fury in the infamous I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore! monologue. His rage darts from idea to idea, providing a startlingly accurate replication of human illogic in times of hopeless despair.

Encapsulated in a package of audience interaction and real-life media integration, interpretations of Network as an ingenious dig at modern day America are unavoidable. The play is a monumental reflection on the disconcerting untruth of the news, rendered even more disturbing considering the biting relevance of this theme today – 40 years have not changed the situation. Network truly sees the National Theatre at the peak of its power.

Katherine Corcoran

(Image courtesy of The National Theatre)