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Network starring Bryan Cranston at the National Theatre – review round-up

A scene from Network. Photo: Jan Versweyveld A scene from Network. Photo: Jan Versweyveld
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Last December, Belgian big-shot Ivo van Hove’s production of Hedda Gabler opened on the National’s Lyttelton stage, a radical revival that the critics duly sunk their teeth into. Now, one year on, he’s back in the same space with a reworked version of Paddy Chayefsky’s satirical 1976 film Network.

Chayefsky’s film, which was directed by Sidney Lumet, follows the fortunes of jaded, jeremiad-spewing New York news anchor Howard Beale, whose raving on-air rants garner a spike for the channel’s ratings. The film took home four awards, including best original screenplay, at the 1976 Oscars, tapping into post-Nixon America’s existential anger.

Van Hove’s adaptation, designed by long-term collaborator Jan Versweyveld and penned by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall, stars American actor Bryan Cranston as Beale. Cranston, best known for his lead role in the binge-worthy US drama Breaking Bad, is making his UK theatre debut.

But can Cranston’s Howard match up to his Heisenberg? Does Van Hove’s production reproduce the five-star fawning over A View from the Bridge and Roman Tragedies, or the two-star tittering of April’s abysmal Obsession? Are the critics mad as hell, and are they going to take it any more?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Network – mad as hell

Bryan Cranston in Network. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Van Hove has helmed some huge international hits over the last few years – Hedda Gabler, Roman Tragedies, A View from the Bridge, Kings of War, Antigone – but he’s no stranger to directing theatrical adaptations of movies, either, having staged versions of Luchino Visconti and Ingmar Bergman films. What does he do with Chayefsky’s classic?

Well, it’s difficult to know where to begin. This is a show of “mindboggling complexity” according to Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★★), that’s “visually dazzling” according to Sam Marlowe (The Stage, ★★★★), and a “non-stop, fluid rollercoaster” according to Daisy Bowie-Sell (What’sOnStage, ★★★★).

“The entire show is effectively staged as a live news broadcast, with a raft of black-clad camera-people projecting the action on to a giant screen,” explains Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★★).

“Stage and screen, past and present – Van Hove smashes them together until the sparks fly,” writes Marlowe. “Cameras swarm over the studio floor and production gallery of Versweyveld’s set, with video footage spliced with garish advertisements. There’s a pulsing soundtrack of bombastic theme tunes and Kraftwerk electronica. One side of the stage is occupied by a working kitchen and restaurant, where ticket holders can dine during the play.”

“Giant numbers, counting down the seconds before airtime, are projected on to the walls,” adds Ben Brantley (New York Times). “Functionaries and technicians gather around Beale like crows to carrion. And images — a churning throng of visions, silly and sombre, of a world in tumult — keep multiplying all around you, like some superbug breed of amoebae.”

“Network is the visual and audio equivalent of the ever-rolling Twitter feed,” says Rosemary Waugh (Exeunt), before correcting herself: “Scrap that. It’s the audio and visual equivalent of a multi-tab browser window simultaneously open on to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and the Guardian’s live news feed.”

Patrick Poletti, Michelle Dockery, Ian Drysdale, Douglas Henshall, Charles Babalola and Paksie Vernon in Network. Photo: Jan Versweyveld
Patrick Poletti, Michelle Dockery, Ian Drysdale, Douglas Henshall, Charles Babalola and Paksie Vernon in Network. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

And what do the critics make of this ferverishly busy, technologically multifarious, high-concept show? Some are blown away, Bowie-Sell calling it “an intense, riveting way of viewing that never allows the audience to turn off”, Lukowski praising its “crazed, hyper-real quality”, and Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★) observing that “even those who find this cult auteur over-praised would have to concede that he seems to have found the perfect material for his modish aesthetic here”.

“Ivo van Hove’s staging is the most triumphant demonstration I have seen of his concepts of space, multimedia and audience/performance relationships,” chimes Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★★★).

Others, though, just can’t get their heads around it, Ann Treneman (Times, ★★) objecting to the “sheer sensory cacophany”, Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★★) complaining that “Ivo the Inventive has gone over the top this time”, and even the effusive Marlowe noting that “everything’s so hectic that you’re not sure where to look”.

“Live film does battle with direct address and real diners eat on stage as the actors act. Chefs cook up beef stews, waitresses glide by, and technicians call the show’s shots,” writes Matt Trueman (Variety). “Who’s acting, who’s not, and what’s the difference, either way? The whole production dances itself into distraction: as much a work of performance as a performance of work.”

“Some will doubtless find all this scrappy and distracting, but that’s the point – one that’s only more relevant 40 years on, when we’re constantly exposed to fragmented, relentless content,” reasons Holly Williams (Independent, ★★★★). “We never switch off; we never focus on just one thing.”

“It can be hard to know where to look, and that’s the point,” chimes Hitchings. “This is a merciless and resonantly topical vision of the way modern media fragments our attention.”

Network – anticipating anger

Michelle Dockery in Network. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Van Hove’s staging is an extraordinary whirlwind of activity, then, but what about the story beneath it? Has adapter Hall eked an equally exciting tale from Chayefsky’s original story? It hit hard in 1976, but does it still resonate today?

“When Lumet brought Chayefsky’s riveting script to the big screen, Network seemed startlingly astute about the noxious relationship between news media, commerce and public outrage,” continues Hitchings. “Yet while Hall’s adaptation is faithful and affectionate, it also speaks vividly to the present — the internet’s power to make us ‘mindless maniacs’, and the potential for our anger to be manipulated by the very forces that enrage us.”

“As a satire it hits several targets dead centre. It imagines a world where news becomes a branch of showbusiness, where profit margins dictate editorial content and where nation states are subordinate to ‘a college of corporations’,” chimes Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★★). “Even if the internet has now replaced network television as the new reality, Chayefsky foresaw how power could be achieved by tapping into popular anger.”

Most critics agree, Marlowe finding Chayefsky’s ideas “spookily prescient”, Trueman calling them “so on-the-money it can seem on-the-nose”, Brantley labelling Network as seeming “as pertinent to our time as it did to its own”, and Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★★) simply stating that “we are now living Chayefsky’s satirical dystopia”.

“Network is a glowing, short-circuiting mess. But so is the world that it so viscerally anticipated,” adds Lukowski. “It’s a giant, chaotic dance of man and video that amplifies a two-pronged message. One, that populism can be a volcanically destructive force that can obliterate the ‘bullshit’ that we call society with frightening speed. Two, that bullshit wins in the end.”

“Hall’s superb adaptation is one of the shining lights of the entire night,” says Bowie-Sell, striking a less pervasively pessimistic tone. “He manages to keep deftly and succinctly to the entire central thread throughout – that it is people who matter, not screens, not big business and not ratings. He makes sure every line lands, leading us through the madness to some semblance of hope at the piece’s end. Hell isn’t other people, says Network, other people are the only thing that will save us. If that’s not a message for today, then I don’t know what is.”

Network – breaking badder

Bryan Cranston in Network. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Hall’s stage version of Chayefsky’s film emphatically embraces the work’s contemporary relevance, then, and Van Hove’s thrillingly three-dimensional production turns the camera in every direction at once. At the show’s centre, though, is one man – how does Cranston fare on his first British outing?

The critics are unanimous: he’s utterly superb, Eleanor Bley Griffiths (Radio Times, ★★★★) lauding a performance that’s “absolutely compelling”, Williams praising his “superb, focused charisma”, and Hitchings gushing over “one of the richest and most agonising performances I’ve ever witnessed”.

“From the first words Beale utters, he projects a lifetime of assumed gravitas now shading into burnout,” describes Brantley. “When he’s reborn as an evangelist of the airwaves — urging his public to open their windows and scream they’re not going to take it anymore — he’s the avenging phoenix that would inevitably rise from such ashes. Watching him romancing the cameras, and seeing him transformed into an army of simulcast selves, is one of this production’s great, disorienting pleasures.”

“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,” describes Cavendish. “Is he mad, is he borderline bad? He’s certainly scintillating to know.”

“Pretty much everything the Breaking Bad star does hits the bullseye in what surely constitutes the most impressive British stage debut from an American actor in years,” enthuses Matt Wolf (the Arts Desk, ★★★★). “Cranston communicates fury where necessary, of course, but also panic, anxiety and against expectation a gathering zen.”

Cranston’s Beale is “a pronounced study in the internalised chaos of existence” according to Adam Bloodworth (Metro, ★★★★), “earns every award going” according to Purves, and is a “surreal unravelling of a man” according to Swain.

Network – is it any good?

Douglas Henshall and Michelle Dockery in Network. Photo: Jan Versweyveld
Douglas Henshall and Michelle Dockery in Network. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Good isn’t exactly the right word. The National’s new adaptation of Chayefsky’s film is a raving, raging rant about society, staged in a mazy myriad of non-stop, multimedia action, and containing an astonishing, award-worthy performance at its brilliant, burning heart.

Hall, Cranston, Van Hove and the gang have pulled in a handful of five-star reviews and a plethora of four-star write-ups. The overwhelming majority of the critics agree: Network is unlike anything we’ve seen before.

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