The National may be having a difficult year with the consecutive critical summer failures of Salome and Common, yet it has still produced two of the most eagerly anticipated shows of the year in Follies and now Ivo van Hove's new stage version of the 1976 film Network. After the triumphant success of Follies, though, Network is a more ambiguously mixed sort of dramatic feat and feast. (For some lucky theatregoers, seated on stage, it is literally a feast, as they are served a five-course meal during the course of the play: a new kind of dinner theatre).
Films and television shows aren't just becoming musicals anymore, like SpongeBob, Mean Girls and Frozen soon on Broadway or Fat Friends now touring in the UK, but being recycled for plays, too. But the paradox of Network is that it turns the theatre into a live event cinema at times, with some of it watched by the audience on a large onstage screen in live relays from cameras following the actors, sometimes outside of the theatre itself or otherwise offstage where the theatre audience itself can't see them.
It all feels very meta as it turns the NT's large Lyttelton stage into a giant TV studio; we've seen this before at the Barbican in van Hove's brilliant and revelatory contemporary Shakespeare productions, but this time the form is a commentary on itself, and it also feels like the director is recycling himself. And as prescient and modish as it is all is meant to be - in an age of the kind of media manipulation and exploiting of a communal rage that got Trump elected as President - its also oddly already dated. Social media - Trump's preferred weapon of communication and outrage - of course didn't exist in 1975.
Network is all about our collective hoodwinking and manipulation by the forces of television; but it feels weirdly, too, like we're falling victims to the same control mechanisms by this slick, over-produced stage version. The audience duly gave it a standing ovation, so perhaps it worked.
The actors are subservient at all times to the technology; so as nice as it is to see US TV star Bryan Cranston on a London stage, there's too much of him on a TV screen. Ditto Michelle Dockery as a producer intent on chasing ratings at all costs, as she exploits her star's on-screen mental breakdown for commercial opportunity as he's re-branded a modern prophet.
The production, meanwhile, chases the thrill of immediacy at all costs (which must be substantial in a production so heavily reliant on cameramen as much as stage managers, not to mention providing a working onstage kitchen to serve those meals). At one point Cranston's TV newscaster even takes a seat in the front stalls amongst the audience itself.
That isn't to say I didn't enjoy Network; there's plenty of food for provocative thought here. But the Oscar-winning film still exists and I'm not sure we needed to revisit it in this form.
What the press said...
"The show's energy is sustained by [Bryan] Cranston, giving one of the richest and most agonising performances I’ve ever witnessed, a King Lear for the soundbite age." - Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard (five stars)
"The success of the show... lies in its capacity to use every facet of live theatre to warn us against surrendering our humanity to an overpowering medium, whether it be television or invasive technology." - Michael Billington, The Guardian (five stars)
"Network is a glowing, short circuiting mess. But so is the world that it so viscerally predicted. And Van Hove’s electrifying staging is like mainlining it all in a million volt injection." - Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out (five stars)
"Cranston’s Beale looks terrific in the many close-ups – thin-lipped, with haunted eyes, he starts off recognisably ordinary, almost invisible, certainly worn-down and moves by degrees from a wild-man in his underpants to an ethereal, inspiring presence unlocking the transcendental mysteries of eternal corporate power." Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph (four stars)