Network @ National Theatre: Sex, Lies and Videotape

I’m writing my notes for this in a pad that’s leaning on a book about genocide, in between seminars after my fourth coffee of the day – just in case you were wondering how third year’s going.

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Network. Right.

It’s an adaptation of the script of a movie I haven’t seen, but apparently it’s a satire, made in the 70s when a world where news is a commodity; integrity and honesty are turned into ash for the sake of a higher share of the ratings. It’s a satire no more – it’s a tragedy (albeit a funny one.)

I’ve barely started this and I’m already finding it bloody difficult. Network is a piece that I completely fell into in the moment, but as I dissect it, it starts to slip away from me. I can’t work out why it works.

As always, spoilers ahoy.

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First: it’s a mess. It just is. I happen to like mess a lot; in fact, it tends to be why I go to the theatre. If I wanted perfection, I’d go to the cinema. Network is a collision of ideas and concepts and styles and it throws them all down at once, demanding you to see it on those terms and on no others. For the most part, this is fine. You lose yourself in the maelstrom of technology and noise and the blur of reality and fiction. It’s so caught up in ‘now’ that it’s hard to break apart, presumably because ‘now’ is similarly hard to break apart. It’s just a big fucking mess.

Simultaneously, everything makes sense somehow; the inclusion of the restaurant onstage shifts the dynamic in the audience, the effortless creation of a privileged few that you’re always aware of, fundamentally having the same experience under very different circumstances.

There’s a slickness to it, a cool, methodical, ruthless precision to it that feels genuinely exciting. The very simple act of including a countdown heightens the ideas of choreography, and the business of news-making. There’s a rush to it, although it can tend towards the artificial. These characters have this shit down. Probably explains why they’re not paying any attention when Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston) goes off-script while on air, explaining how he plans to kill himself a week hence, and why all hell subsequently breaks loose. Or something.

Because horribly, Beale’s threat has made the ratings jump. And the network, the people for whom information is a money-making industry, jump on the opportunity. Who gives a shit about accuracy, because if no-one’s watching, what’s the point? But this isn’t new. This isn’t groundbreaking, as it may well have been in the 1970s. That’s not where the horror lies – instead, the horror is in the fact that misinformation under capitalism is a very old idea. It was always going to get to this ridiculous level because nobody was willing to call it out – least of all a media that relies on it to pay their mortgages. When information is commercialised, and presuming the aim of commercialism is power, this is the logical endpoint.

It also feels cinematic; the way that screen is used, the way it focuses and highlights is forensic the in the same way that a movie screen is forensic, in what feels like a very different way to RomTrag, where the camera sought to frame and re-frame the relationships between the characters, and between the characters and the audience. Here it makes sense of the chaos, presenting you with a single image to follow. The video is totally integrated, most notably in a sequence that’s just begging to go wrong, where two characters start out on the South Bank and end up on stage. It moves like film, sequences sliding over each other. And it’s beautifully cut together, the video folks on this have excelled themselves.

And that set is cool. Like, really cool. It’s possibly the best use of the Lyttelton I’ve seen, and I hate that damn theatre. It seems you have two options; throw everything including the kitchen sink at it (the Network approach) or take absolutely everything away and let the space take on its own character (the Angels in America approach.)

*

Bryan Cranston acts with such ease it’s unnerving. The use of camera and the fact he’s mic’ed means that his performance can carry a whole range of subtleties; the way he angles his forehead at the start, or the way he can charm the audience senseless, or the way he can be stuck dumb by something else. He creates a character who knows how to measure every single one of his actions to conceal and provoke emotion. He’s been playing politics his whole life, so what’s a shift to fiction?

But he’s not the whole show; Douglas Henshall might be doing the best work in it, as Beale’s long-time friend and colleague. It’s subtle, slight work, but he’s totally solid. And Michelle Dockery looks like she’s having an absolute blast. She has that capacity to be completely seductive and charming, and then turn on her heel and destroy everything in her path, a real volatility.

But it’s in the acting that you start to notice Van Hove isn’t a great director of actors. Of concept, yes. And of style and clarity there’s few his equal – but when there’s a bigger cast on stage, you see the edges start to fray. None of the acting is bad, by any means. But it’s as if they’re inhabiting completely different worlds. Half of the actors nail the naturalism the piece asks for, but half are using the Lyttelton like it’s The Plough and the Stars; as if this is traditional storytelling – and it’s not. I could see the seams, I could see why things weren’t quite fitting together a beautifully as they should, and I suppose I found that frustrating.

*

It could probably lose about 15 minutes, but I’m fairly sure van Hove sticks with a text rightly or wrongly, so you have to take the text on its own terms. I saw a preview so there were a couple of sound issues but I’m not a dick so I won’t hold that against them.

But ultimately I felt that Network lacked the excitement of RomTrag, and the lacerating emotion of Hedda Gabler. Rather, it feels overtly political in a way I don’t expect from van Hove – but I’m not sure the politics are consistent or even coherent. Not a bad thing. But that confusion has led to my confusion, and I’m not sure what I think about it.

Round and round in circles again, Harry.

I really liked it. Honestly. But I don’t know why, and honestly I’m not even sure I understand it.

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