In 1976, a film called Network cleaned up at the Oscars, winning four Academy Awards. Written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by the great, late Sidney Lumet, the black comedy was written and released during the Watergate Scandal and the Vietnam War, poking fun at the lengths to which the networks would go to get better ratings. But Network wasn’t so much a satire as an eerie prediction of digital things to come.
Fast forward to 2017, and here we are in the age of fake news, Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch et al. To add a contemporary, theatrical twist to the genius of the original Network script, the National Theatre bagged itself the stellar director Ivo van Hove, the most loveable baddie ever, Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and the playwright Lee Hall. Throw in the first immersive dining of its kind on-stage at the National Theatre and bam: you get one of the most intelligent theatrical adventures you will ever experience.
“The first rule of news: you do not become the news”
Network at the National – The Plot
Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston) is a veteran evening news anchor on UBS station. His ratings have plummeted, so he gets his marching orders from the powers-that-be. Disgruntled and mad as hell, he announces he will commit suicide the following week, on screen and live. The ratings skyrocket in anticipation of the live suicide.
The UBS network realise they’re onto something, in particular the ambitious, stop-at-nothing head of programming, Diana Christensen (Michelle Dockery). Beale is persuaded to stay on and to give his own radical interpretation of the news. He becomes a spokesman for the ordinary man – a cyber prophet. His slogan, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” becomes the mantra for his show, a call to digital arms.
“I just ran out of bullshit”
Bryan Cranston isn’t the only star in the house. The set is quite simply, extraordinary. It’s a full replica of a TV news set with live cameras, a hair and makeup area, sound and editing booths and transmission screens. A copper floor adds an angry, iridescent quality to the whole set, highlighting our voyeuristic tendencies and our need to see and be seen 24 hours day. After all, Network is about all of us.
Van Hove isn’t the only Belgian in the National Theatre house. The set design is by Jan Versweyveld who is a permanent fixture in Van Hove’s repertory group, Toneelgroep Amsterdam. This is where I have to shout-out to a friend of mine who is the Associate Set Designer for Network. His name is Paul Atkinson, and I think he and the design team have created some theatrical magic here. (Virtual clapping, Paul)
Network couldn’t be more contemporary if it tried. In a murky age of Twitter rants and trolling, fake news, corporate giants, anti-establishment resentment and public disillusionment, Howard Beale doesn’t sound unhinged. In fact, he may just be the sanest person around: a latter day Messiah. Now, if only we could get him on Twitter, I reckon he would give a certain orange-faced politician a run for his money!
Network, National Theatre. On until 24 March 2018. All performances are sold out but check every Friday as tickets are released online for the following week’s performances.
A TV Dinner but not as you know it
The National Theatre operated a ballot system which would allow a select and lucky few to eat on-stage during the performance of Network, a one-of-a-kind fully immersive experience. Foodwork included a three-course dinner with actors milling around the restaurant. We, the restaurant punters served as props. Whilst the set was technologically contemporary, the restaurant had a retro-cool cool, Mad Men vibe to it.
“Television is not the truth. TV is a goddamned amusement park.”
I couldn’t take any photos during the production, but I can tell you that Bryan Cranston came to our table as part of the play and even put his arms on our shoulders. He joined the audience to watch the play for a good five minutes, and other actors joined us in the bar area and in the restaurant. Prior to the performance, the American actor Patrick Poletti chatted to us at our table. The waiters were also actors (and I can say that the service was Oscar-worthy).
Entrance to the Foodwork restaurant was via a separate entrance to the side of the National Theatre. We were told to arrive promptly at 6.45pm and to be dressed in smart, dark casual clothes. We were escorted to the back of the stage to meet the Maître d’ and onto our restaurant seats where we were welcomed with a drink.
The Foodwork restaurant and bar is on-stage and part of the set. We had a choice of dining in the restaurant for £95 or at the bar for £75. We were asked to pre-order a standard or vegetarian menu which included a Mad as Hell cocktail and a glass of wine, but you can order extra wine during the meal. The tables were rubberised which minimised the clunk of cutlery and the ching of glassware.
Stage with a view
This is the view from the stage and from our table. Were we daunted? Not a bit. The whole experience felt comfortable and intimate. I’m not sure how the audience felt as we tucked into our taleggio and salsify tart, washed down with a crisp glass of Pinot Grigio. No doubt they thought we were actors, and if they didn’t, I do hope they didn’t hate us too much!
There is no availability in the on-stage Foodwork restaurant, but you can sample the menu at the National Theatre’s House restaurant after the performance.
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