Review – Network, National Theatre

Thursday 9 November 2017

Questioner:  Network was a brilliant seventies satire about American television. It won a slew of Academy Awards, including one for Beatrice Straight who had the shortest screen time of any acting winner and Peter Finch won the first ever posthumous acting Oscar. It also proved incredibly prophetic about a lot of things including the medium of TV. What did you think you could possibly add by putting it onto a stage?

Ivo Van Hove:  I thought I could add a restaurant. It’s called Foodwork, geddit? I also thought I could add a real bar and a vorking kitchen, all on the stage before your very eyes. You can vatch ordinary members of the public having the Portland crabs vhilst vatching the show.

Q:  Mmmm. Can I assume you are keen to avoid comparisons with the original film?

IvH:  This is a totally new experience. The story features media manipulation and terrorism and gin and tonic sorbets for desert. It couldn’t be more relevant. Most people probably von’t have seen the film anyway.

Q:  That’s true. One of the women who saw it with me kept banging on about Holly Hunter. She’d got terribly confused as she was hoping she was seeing a stage version of Broadcast News.

But I must say you’ve assembled a crack team around you and I don’t just mean the kitchen staff creating ox cheek bourguignon.

IvH:  Lee Hall who did Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters has adapted Paddy Chayefsky‘s Oscar-winning screenplay and my partner Jan Versweyveld has come up with the stunning design. Plus ve have Bryan Cranston and Michelle Dockery in the Finch and Faye Dunaway roles. It’s Breaking Bad meets Downton AbbeyIt was the closest ve could get to Mrs Patmore on crystal meth.

It’s about a TV anchor Howard Beale, who learns he’s about to lose his job due to falling ratings, threatens to top himself on air and goes on to declare his life “bullshit”. Ratings start to soar and Beale becomes a sort of mad messianic prophet for the nation who famously encourages the viewers to fling open their windows and shout “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Q:  You got the public to send in their own videos of them shouting that iconic line?

IvH:  Yes, this is a technically complex and massive multi-media show: the public’s clips are montaged together in that sequence. I can’t tell you how much money ve’ve saved by not hiring actors.

Q:  About the video thing. Much of the show is filmed and displayed on screens above or around the actors and there are adverts, graphics and all sorts of things showing on the many TVs most of the time. It’s very difficult to know where to look, locate who is speaking and concentrate on the plot, though I must admit I enjoyed the coffee advert with a youthful-looking Roy Scheider. Whole sections of scenes are masked as people filming stand in front of the actors. In Beale’s opening scene he wanders off to the bar and can’t be seen by most of the audience which forces us to watch on a screen. Are you deliberately returning the production to it’s original filmic origins?

IvH:  Yes! And aren’t the technicians clever getting the sound so massively out of sync? The whole thing is designed to disorient the audience and make them mad as hell.

Q:  That certainly worked for me. Tell me about the bit where Bryan Cranston climbs off stage and into the audience and sits among them and the audience are filmed seeing themselves up there on stage on screens.

IvH:  Bryan is brilliant isn’t he? Like Beale he’s vorking his audience. You the audience are vatching yourselves vatching Bryan who is vatching you. Or something. And vouldn’t you love to go to dinner at the veekend and be able to tell your friends you appeared on the Lyttelton stage or sat next to Valter Vhite?

Q:  Dockery plays ambitious Diane Christensen, she’s head of network programming and in one scene humps Douglas Henshall‘s news president at a restaurant table surrounded by real diners. I found myself studying the faces of the diners rather than watching the actual scene. Was that your intention?

IvH:  Absolutely! One of the things it’s about is how the public react to things. Ve’re manipulating the audience just as the networks are.

Q:  Aren’t there those who believe that Beale anticipates the rise of Trump? Is that why you show a montage of different Presidential inauguration ceremonies as the audience file out after the curtain call? I hung around to watch. It wasn’t difficult to predict that Obama would get cheers and that Trump would be booed.

IvH:  Yes, ve’re playing the crowd and ve’re playing to the crowd. Ve manipulate them collectively like sheep. It makes them feel good. Ve also tell them when to applaud and shout out the “Mad as hell” line during the show. Surprisingly most of them do. Ve didn’t have the panto in Heist-op-den-Berg, so I created my own version of it.

Q:  When you first enter the auditorium it’s quite remarkable looking at what you have put up there on stage. It’s incredibly busy and fascinating to watch even before the play has begun. Though I’m still puzzled about the significance of the bar and restaurant and I did feel the novelty wore off after about, mmm, say just 10 minutes and I wanted to concentrate on the play rather than all the extraneous business. I haven’t even mentioned the annoying clatter of restaurant cutlery or the live band playing ersatz Kraftwerk music from a perch high above the stage.

IvH:  This is about TV. People eat and drink and talk as they vatch TV. And their attention spans are very limited these days so I wanted to create that feeling of distraction in the audience. If your attention vanders and you start looking at your vatch then I’ve done my job. And yes, the novelty is meant to vear off. Just as the ratings fall when the novelty of Howard’s TV act vears thin.

Q:  One of the people I saw it with felt it was like sitting in a sports bar.

It’s very risky being this bold. People are either going to love it or hate it. My party of six were split 50/50. How do you respond to accusations of pretentiousness?

IvH:  My organic garden at home might have a bumper crop one year and a blight the next and produce nothing. It’s hard vork but it’s a risk I take. Of course I could just make life much simpler by going to Iceland to get Jan a bag of frozen peas for his tea.

Q:  It’s 2 hours long without an interval. Did you fear people might walk out?

IvH:  There are some risks that even I am not prepared to take.

Q:  What’s next for you Ivo?

IvH:  It’ll be All About Eve with Cate Blanchett.

Q:  Can you talk about your take on that?

IvH:  Vell, the story begins at a theatre avards bash so ve vere going to do the whole thing as a Tony Avards style ceremony hosted by Kevin Spacey but of course ve’ve had to edit that out. Now I’m going to set the whole thing on an airplane. The audience vill have to check in for the performance, bringing their passports vith them, go through very tight security before queuing for unreserved seats in the auditorium vhere they’ll vatch the whole show on in-flight entertainment systems. Every few minutes their TVs will be interrupted by Cate’s voice telling them “fasten your safety belts”…

Q:  Interesting. Will the audiences actually see Cate?

IvH:  She’ll be there but will stay in the dressing room throughout. It is a backstage story after all. After that I’d like to tackle a musical. I’m thinking about Sunday in the Park Vith George vhere the audience are invited to try on-stage paint-balling or Gypsy but vithout any songs.

Q:  But….”You Gotta Have A Gimmick”? Surely you’ll leave that in?




7 Responses to “Review – Network, National Theatre”

  1. theatreguymike Says:

    Dear IvH – Please don’t sack Spacey, he needs the verk.

  2. Carole Mason Says:

    Brilliant! I think this should get “Review of the Year” award

  3. Philip Warland Says:

    Just seen it and I think you are harsh. It needs to be trimmed ( confirmed by the wannabes in the House restaurant) but I guess it depends where you are coming from. I have been on news programmes and Today and the representations were good.

    My problem were the longueurs, preaching, and odd marital interventions. At one stage I nearly fell asleep.

    I thought the use of all the TV was great, the staging was good, acting 4/5.

    No-one, including my wife, got the Billy Graham reference, ” I want you to get up out of your seat” BG on loop in the background.

    if they cut it to 95 minutes it will be good

  4. Richard Calder Says:

    Just seen it. Spot on for some of comments but I agree with Phillip above that you were too harsh. The play sped along.
    Most awkward moment definitely goes to Cranston clambering into the audience panto style. Found the restaurant gimmicky but less distracting than you did. Maybe the diners had been briefed not to clatter their cutlery? That said, Cranston pulled it off overall and for once video screens and cameras on stage were relevant rather than the current rash of this technique in the West End see Almeida et al

  5. I thought it was brilliant but I do enjoy your reviews when you dislike a play. They are much more entertaining than when you have a good time!

  6. Emma Says:

    I saw it last week and thinking back on it now, all I can remember was the restaurant and thinking ‘this is indulgent twaddle, isn’t it?’

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