“Fasten your seatbelt, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” No, wait, sorry, that’s Ivo van Hove‘s next show. This week, we’re all going to be mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it any more. Possibly with dinner, if you paid for the onstage seats. With all due deference to Dominic Cooke’s revival of Follies, which is currently playing two flights of stairs up, Network, adapted by Lee Hall from Paddy Chayefsky‘s screenplay, might be the theatrical thrill-ride of the year. Even if you know the screenplay quite well, you’ll be on the edge of your seat; this is a big, bold, wildly inventive, viciously satirical theatrical extravaganza, and Mr. van Hove appears to have thrown his entire bag of tricks at the Lyttelton stage – including the kitchen sink. And a full kitchen, and a bar, and a restaurant. Add an ingenious set by Jan Versweyveld, an endlessly inventive, eye-popping video design by Tal Yarden, a mirrored floor, a lot of video screens, cameras, a control booth, make-up chairs at the back of the stage in full view of the audience, live-action footage projected on a screen above the stage, and a quartet of musicians at the top of the stage pumping out a Kraftwerk-esque electronic score, and you’re pretty much getting the full Ivo van Hove. A seatbelt might actually come in useful: this production is a rollercoaster, and it never lets up.
I’m not always a fan of flamboyant directorial trickery, and last year I felt van Hove’s production of Lazarus worked far better as performance art or as a gig than as theatre. This time, the technological cleverness, the design, the prominent positioning of audience members eating onstage, the look, the feel, the music, the (very, very fine) performances, are all working in unison towards the same purpose… and here is where a certain kind of purist may snarl, because that purpose isn’t quite simply about telling the story.
Lee Hall’s adaptation, in fact, stays very close indeed to Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay, although it strips away much of the terrorist subplot. This is still, as projected text informs us at the very top of the show, the story of Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston), a veteran newscaster whose on-air nervous breakdown precipitates a spectacular ratings spike for his third-rate television network, which in turn sets off a battle of wits between a driven, more-or-less psychotic producer from the entertainment division determined to exploit Beale’s ratings potential, and the president of the network’s ailing news division, who is deeply wary of the consequences of conflating news with entertainment. The action still takes place in the mid-1970s, although the tech elements use equipment that is light years ahead of anything available “in period”. The production delivers the story with admirable clarity, but there’s more than that going on here: above all else, this is an extended theatrical examination of the way we consume media, or perhaps the way media consumes us. Accordingly, van Hove places the entire show in a fully-functioning television studio that encompasses the entire Lyttelton stage. At home, we sit and flip channels, and shift our attention from the TV to a laptop to a tablet to a phone and back again without thinking about it, so there’s a constant tapestry of action onstage with the main focus constantly moving from live action to the screens and back again. There’s always several things going on in the background; van Hove does an exceptional job of directing your eyes to look where he wants you to, but if you look elsewhere you’ll still pick up relevant information, or at least an amusingly kitsch 70s TV commercial. We consume news as background noise while we’re eating or drinking or talking, so there are tables onstage where we, the audience in the traditional seats, can see an audience consuming food and drink as they watch the play. Several times, the actors play all or part of a scene right in the middle of the onstage audience, and at one point, the play completely breaks the fourth wall and the action moves into the stalls – at which point a camera is directed into the auditorium, and the view from the stage of the Lyttelton is projected onto a screen.
The line between live action and film is constantly blurred; one scene even begins (on screen, but live) outside on the South Bank and moves seamlessly indoors through the National’s corridors until it ends up in the onstage bar area. A warm-up man encourages the audience to join in at key points by shouting out that line – a weirdly uncomfortable experience, since you’re basically being asked to cheer a nervous breakdown. At one key moment video clips, solicited via Twitter, of members of the public shouting that line are projected onto the walls above the stage. Literally and figuratively, it’s an electric theatrical experience, and every element is designed to underpin Chayefsky’s satirical thesis about how people can be manipulated by a corporate-driven media when the boundaries between fact and entertainment start to break down – although the point isn’t made explicitly until a brief video montage shown after the curtain call at the end of the show. Over a couple of minutes, we see clips of the inauguration of every US President from Nixon to the current incumbent – and that’s all it takes to make the dangers of reality-based entertainment blindingly obvious.
What you’re getting, then, is a big dose of Marshall McLuhan wrapped up in a lot of shiny electronics and slick stagecraft (television, incidentally, is not the medium, it’s the hardware that delivers the message). It’s a dazzling spectacle, but the spectacle somehow never overwhelms Bryan Cranston’s astonishing performance as Howard Beale. It’s not simply that Cranston effortlessly holds your attention in the middle of a two-hour fireworks-display of a production, even from parts of the stage where you can’t quite see him. It’s that at the centre of an overwhelming, in-your-face production in which every element is designed to reinforce a satirical point about the dehumanising effect of mass media, he perfectly captures Howard Beale’s raw vulnerability and the pitch-black satirical comedy that runs through the heart of the show like the letters in a stick of rock. The “…mad as Hell” monologue is a tour-de-force; in a production packed from wall to wall with eye-popping directorial flourishes, nothing is more memorable than Cranston’s star turn. There’s equally fine work from Douglas Henshall (in the William Holden role), Tunji Kasim (the Robert Duvall role), and Caroline Faber (in the relatively tiny role that won Beatrice Straight an Oscar). Michelle Dockery deploys her two facial expressions to far better effect as Diana Christensen, the psychopathic TV producer (originally played by Faye Dunaway) who will go to any lengths in her quest for ratings, than she ever achieved in Downton Abbey. Surrounding the leads, there’s a stage full of supporting performers, technicians, cameras, and – oh yes – restaurant patrons; it’s a dense, sometimes overwhelming experience to sit through, but it works.
It’s also sold out, even before the reviews appear (I saw one of the final previews; press night is tonight, and in terms of sales the reviews are just about irrelevant). It’s worth lining up for day seats; this production raises a lot of serious questions, and shows us over and over again how terrifyingly prescient Chayefsky’s original screenplay was, but it’s also tremendous fun. As I said, this is a wild rollercoaster of a show, an edge-of-your-seat theatrical joyride that isn’t quite like anything else you’ll see this year. Even if you’re dubious – as I am – about self-consciously tricksy directorial flourishes, go. For once, the gimmicks work – and quite apart from the gimmicks, Bryan Cranston’s performance is one for the ages.
Just maybe do a vocal warmup first – there are signs in the lobby warning that the production “contains loud noises”, but they don’t mention that you’ll be making some of them yourself.