THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Adapted by Lee Hall based on the Paddy Chayefsky film
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
"I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore" was the famous cry of news anchorman Howard Beale as he had his nervous breakdown on live TV in Sidney Lumet's classic 1976 movie Network. Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote it, had started his career doing live teleplays in the early days of US television, so it is interesting to see this material jump medium in reverse, from film to stage.
Chayefsky, one of Hollywood's most acclaimed screenwriters, was a fierce polemicist and here he railed against what he saw as news having become a division of the entertainment business. Social critic Neil Postman wrote a much more enlightening book on this topic a few years later, which he wittily titled Amusing Ourselves to Death. Goodness knows what Chayefsky or Postman would think if they've lived to see the rise of social media, infotainment, the personalisation of politics and the ascent to the White House of a reality TV star. They'd probably self-combust.
What was happening to network TV news in the mid '70s was small fry compared to what's taken place since but it is nevertheless enlightening to follow a trend back to its origins.
The proposition here is a very sexy one. Rufus Norris (NT Director) has brought together the hugely acclaimed Belgian auteur Ivo van Hove with Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston in the Peter Finch role. Van Hove is a great choice as mixed media staging is his bread and butter and Cranston is perfect casting too, as he is so totally at the top of his game and can deftly ride the more hysterical elements. He is mesmerising.
To add to the star wattage the Faye Dunaway part of the gloriously venal network programming executive is played by Michelle Dockery of Downton fame. Douglas Henshall completes the leads, solid as Max, the head of news and the only one with any human concern for Howard. The others, initially horrified by his impromptu outburst on a live news programme, change their tune when they realise it's becoming a ratings smash. They happily ride this wave until the outburst are directed at the effects of corporate capitalism, when a final reckoning has to be made with the gnomic Arthur Jensen (Richard Cordery), the CEO of the parent company. He descends, Moses like, to put the foolish Howard right about the realities of media ownership.
Van Hove's staging (with regular designer Jan Versweyveld) echoes his stunning 8 hour immersive treatment of Shakespeare's Roman Tragedies, seen at the Barbican earlier this year. There, the audience was totally liberated to fill the stage, which was set up as a huge airport lounge complete with restaurant and bar and with the action popping up here and there. This staging is an unfortunate compromise with that which diminishes the overall effect and only serves to confuse newcomers. The vast bulk of audience is still trapped in the auditorium with just a few having dinner in a section of the stage set out as a restaurant. It makes his work look gimmicky, which it isn't. This is van Hove reined in.
Traditionalists will rail at how the eye is distracted by screens rather than being held in thrall by an actor in full flow, but van Hove rightly gives them short shrift. His work is always infused by mics and cameras and free staging and he hates declamatory Acting. One scene even takes place outside, on a wintry South Bank, with the actors walking back in 'live' on camera.
The film became an iconic liberal text and a warning about infotainment but looked at today it seems more strident than clever. Van Hove's vibrant staging and a pitch perfect cast do wonders with the material but there is no denying this is a night of screaming at the masses. The reality is that the internet and social media liberated people from being talked down to, as much as anything else, which Chayefsky no doubt wouldn't accept. How media shapes our lives is more up for grabs these days, it's just that every player needs to be a lot smarter about how they go about it. Clever as this thinks it is, it is ultimately unfulfilling because it has dated. Shouting at the great unwashed doesn't get you anywhere nowadays, something Mr Trump got the measure of faster than all his liberal critics.