BWW Review: NETWORK, National Theatre
News as showbiz, entire networks and even a reality TV President fuelled by articulating popular rage, and gradual corporate dehumanisation: we are now living Paddy Chayefsky's satirical dystopia. Lee Hall's astute adaptation recognises that the 1976 movie needs little updating to feel like a searing indictment of 2017.
UBS news anchor Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston) is about to be fired due to catastrophic viewing figures. But his on-air promise to commit suicide on his final show sparks a surprise ratings hike, and the public responds favourably to his frank dismissal of life's "bullshit".
Producer Max Schumacher (Douglas Henshall) is concerned for him, but ambitious entertainment programmer Diana Christensen (Michelle Dockery) sees an opportunity to cast Howard as a latter-day prophet, offering "editorial comment" on the world in a way that harnesses popular anger - and provides serious ad revenue.
Ivo van Hove's production seems designed for the multi-screen generation. Jan Versweyveld's set features numerous monitors, plus a giant LED video wall, and Tal Yarden's videos blur the boundaries between mediums.
It heightens our awareness of TV being made, its manipulation of an audience, the fictional undercurrents of what many consider authentic. "The only thing you know is what you get on your television," laughs Beale - and he might as well be talking to Fox viewers today. Fake news indeed.
There's also an active choice for this theatre audience in how they watch the drama. Van Hove delineates the stage: on the left is the control room, in the centre Howard's domain, and on the right is the outside world - bars and restaurants. Handheld cameras project the action onto screens, so we can flick between screen and "reality", assessing the complex relationship between the two.
It does make for a busy stage, and the righthand restaurant section - where audience members who won seats in a ballot can have a drink or meal, immersed in the action - while thematically clever, is probably a distraction too many.
But there's thrilling immediacy to the show, because of, not despite, the video work. You can't help but admire the bravado choreography of a section filmed outside the National segueing perfectly into an onstage dinner date, or the constant meta-commentary - other anchors reporting on Howard, the use of vintage ads as a reminder of the commerce driving this whole enterprise.
Diana, symbol of the soulless TV generation, even attempts to script her doomed relationship with married Max. It's a witty framing, but the workplace romance - particularly one with a clear age difference - reads queasily in the current climate, and his critique of her professional focus feels uncomfortably gendered. It's best when treated as farce: Diana reciting programming ideas while screwing a bewildered Max.
Hall's adaptation also minimises the subplot where Diana turns terrorists into entertainment, but Dockery makes the most of it. The scene in which she plays a tape of an activist making eerily resonant statements about technology as social control, widening the gulf between rich and poor, and then flips over to footage of a subsequent massacre - her peppy enthusiasm shifting into blinkered fanaticism about its ratings gold - is genuinely chilling.
Henshall emphasises Max's fear of professional obsolescence as a more primal terror of mortality - an effective humanisation of the show's theme of one world order being replaced by another.
Articulating that change is the terrific Richard Cordery as the big boss, who preaches the religion of globalised corporations; van Hove gives him godlike physical positioning. Tunji Kasim is also excellent as the slick manager Hackett, whose presentations are always accompanied by busy flow charts.
But this is Cranston's show, and he makes a monumental UK stage debut - from wearying anchor, whose hoary, repeated anecdote takes on real melancholy, through wrenching personal crisis, to wild-eyed, reborn mystic. He is, unsurprisingly, riveting in close-up, particularly as van Hove deliberately takes action and screen out of sync, or replicates Cranston several times - a surreal unravelling of a man.
But he's equally impressive in quieter moments with the live audience, as he talks, with stirring passion, about the need for faith in people and community; it's dangerous to adhere solely to "absolute beliefs". Even the "mad as hell" battle cry rings with empathy.
The show makes the vital point that this isn't just about television; viewers were encouraged to send in their own "mad as hell" clips via social media, that new platform for rage. Even the shiny, dark floor recalls the black mirror of a smartphone screen.
A coda shows inaugurations of US Presidents, the most recent drawing boos and catcalls. But it's the very busyness of modern media - so aptly illustrated by van Hove's production - that fragments a response to this threat to democracy, that "dying giant". Charged, propulsive theatre.
Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld