james debate
james debate

Friday 23 February 2018

Directed by Ivo van Hove
Written by Adapted by Lee Hall from the Paddy Chayefsky film
Starring Bryan Cranston, Michelle Dockery, Douglas Henshall
Theatre National

network national theatre peter finch bryan cranston chayefsky trump obama fox news

It has been forty years since Paddy Chayefsky’s Network first appeared in cinemas, and yet its themes are still as relevant as ever. The original film version is considered a cinematic classic; a parable of the power of television, and the danger of putting our blind faith in the things we see and hear in its content.

Howard Beale is a longtime news anchor fired from his job due to the declining ratings of his show and the news division at large. During his last broadcast, something snaps in Beale and he announces that he will kill himself, live on TV. The resulting ratings boost convinces the news network to cynically keep him on the air, and Beale begins a journey that will see his sanity continue to decline as he becomes the voice of populist rage for the nation.

Network depicts a world where entertainment masquerades as news for the sake of profit, where information is disseminated by shadowy and corrupt interests, less to educate than to manipulate and control. A world where there is no objective truth and all facts are subjective. In the decades since, we have seen the rise of fake news, of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck (essentially the original film’s “mad prophet” brought to life), and of Fox News, a news network that openly defends its content by declaring itself to be “entertainment” rather than actual news. The conceit of Network was a terrifying idea back in the 1970s, but today it’s not a stretch to say that much of it has indeed come to pass.

The National Theatre’s adaptation adds a modern spin to the story, with allusions to fake news and social media. Beale’s reinvention as the mad prophet of the airwaves is brought to life through a decidedly more modern, Jerry Springer-esque manifestation than Chayefsky could ever have foreseen at the time of writing. In one magnificent sequence, we see one of Beale’s rants going viral, through the replication of hundreds of social media posts and vines of people reciting his most famous motto: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

This is all presented through the brilliant staging and set design, which combines a stage, studio, makeup room, and restaurant in one efficiently laid out space, and a backdrop which features a cacophony of TV screens in various sizes. One gigantic screen in particular takes centre-stage, alternating between a close-up view of the various events playing out on stage, and a melange of thematically complementary videos and effects. When it’s not being used as a live camera, it flickers endlessly with clips of old commercials and news events. It’s a distracting presence, but no doubt that is very much the point: there are actual people, real people on stage, and yet the audience is drawn almost hypnotically to that all-powerful TV.

And then there’s the acting. No one was ever going to be able to touch Peter Finch’s Oscar winning depiction in the original, but Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston leaves his own mark on the role with an indelible performance. This is no mere imitation, rather he counterpoints Finch’s powerful rage with a much sadder and more fearful energy, that is nevertheless every bit as powerful.

The production closes with a video reel of every President from the movie's release onward, reciting the oath of office at their inauguration. It begins with Ford, climaxes with a massive cheer from the audience for Obama, and jeers for Donald Trump. The message is clear. This is a man elected to an office for which he is wholly incapable and unsuited, purely because of the awesome force of TV propaganda, at the behest of corrupt interests that hide in the shadows. Donald Trump is essentially the pure manifestation of everything Network predicted. At its original launch, the message of Network was terrifying and bold, but in hindsight it’s downright prophetic.

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