Since its inception in 1963, the National Theatre, quite rightly, hasn’t promoted the dramatising of famous films. As far as I’m aware, the only exception to this was A Matter of Life and Death, a flat-footed deconstruction of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s World War II classic, which they co-presented in 2007 with Kneehigh Theatre. Now, 10 years on – with more success and admirable fidelity to the original – they’ve turned Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet’s Oscar-winning satire Network into a full-scale theatre piece.
Adapted by Lee Hall (who wrote Billy Elliot) and directed by high-flying Ivo van Hove, this vibrant flesh-and-blood version stars the magnetic Bryan Cranston of TV’s Breaking Bad, who, in the role originally created by Peter Finch, plays Howard Beale, an Ed Murrow-like newscaster working for UBS, a New York TV network in steep decline.
Low nightly ratings have taken its toll on Beale’s popularity, and regardless of his long and respected career as anchorman for the station’s 6:00 news, he has been fired. Signing off his newscast the day after he learns of his sacking, he informs his viewers that if they tune into his final appearance the following week, they’ll witness his suicide on air.
Following the predictable chaos triggered by this announcement, UBS’s executives reluctantly allow him to apologise to viewers the following evening. But rather than lamely comply, Beale goes wildly off script by fulminating against all the “bullshit” in the world today.
Understandably, UBS’s executives are apoplectic, until they discover that Beale’s so-called “apology” received the highest viewing figures the network has had in years. Overnight he inadvertently launches himself into the ratings stratosphere and becomes the hot new personality in TV’s fickle firmament. Unfortunately, it seriously compromises his sanity, and in the theatre, audiences get an up-close and personal view as they witness a devastating nervous breakdown in progress.
With astonishing prescience, Chayefsky satirises the national stranglehold television has on America. But at the same time, he (via Beale) also takes swipes at corporate greed, abuse of power, unscrupulous media manipulation and the insidious Arab infiltration into the American way of life. As Beale puts it, we’ve become “transistorised, deodorised, dehumanised, mass produced and regulated.”
Collective hysteria also looms large, and as in the film’s most famous scene, Beale’s mantra that he is mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore goes nationwide. But the public, who turned Beale into a latter-day Will Rogers, can cut down just as swiftly as they raise up, and when their unofficial spokesperson declares that human existence is utterly futile and purposeless, his fickle public switches off and watches his ratings drop.
As in the film, there’s a romantic (if it can be called that) sub-plot between ultra-ambitious, ratings-obsessed Diana Christensen and top network executive Max Schumacher, who happens to be Beales’ best friend. In the film, they were played by Fay Dunaway and William Holden. Here the roles go to by Michelle Dockery and Douglas Henshall.
Providing some perfunctory love interest, the couple’s most memorable scene shows them having full-on, albeit mechanical sex, during which Diana never stops talking about her daytime programming. Van Hove stages this scene from two points of view. We see it projected onto a big screen that dominates the back of the stage as well as in the flesh, where it is observed by an audience of diners who occupy a portion of Jan Versweyveld's extremely busy set, the basis of which is a TV studio complete with control rooms and executive offices.
Van Hove’s direction, always alive and alert, is substantially enhanced by Tel Yarden’s dizzying array of video images. Versweyveld’s complicated lighting designs and (sometimes irritatingly) Eric Sleichim’s music and sound effects.
Cranston’s central performance is a total triumph. As befits an actor who made his name in an iconic TV series, he is often seen in close-up on the big screen, and boy, does the camera love him. He has a riveting presence, and although there is no backstory to the character he plays, he is the sustaining power of a production whose adequate supporting cast members aren’t in the league of their celluloid counterparts.
Though there is no question that van Hove’s production has a sustainable inventive energy to it and that the material is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago – especially with the internet taking the place of television – I do wonder whether film adaptations are really something the National should be spending its resources on?
The bottom line is that in no respect does the stage version, which is often top-heavy in its didacticism and preachiness (and which, like the film, has a two-hour running time), ever improve on the original. For all its quality and topicality I just don’t see the point.