Review: Network, National Theatre - 70s TV news drama has fresh relevance
Today the battle might have shifted towards garnering clicks, likes and downloads but the fundamental desire to tap into the zeitgeist, to be popular, is the same as it was back when Paddy Chayefsky wrote the screenplay for Network 40 years ago.
And the story of the fall and rise of news anchor Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston) in the battle to attract viewers and revenue isn't just relevant for these particular themes but it also taps into a whole host of contemporary issues. It's quite startling.
Howard, faced with the ending of his career, says he will commit suicide on air.
His chance at an apology, a final dignified broadcast, turns into a rant about life being bullshit which pushes up ratings and becomes something to be exploited by ambitious TV producer Diana Christensen (Michelle Dockery).
Inadvertently, he has tapped into some key feelings of societal discontent: high unemployment, rising fuel prices and globalisation which exploits cheap labour outside of America. Any of that sound familiar?
Diana's exploitation of the mentally unstable Howard is a precursor to reality TV and perhaps YouTube and social media where it is just as fine to laugh at people as it is with. Where sensationalisation takes over.
Network touches on fake news and echo chambers; giving people what they like, what resonates with their preconceived ideas and feeding fears or pressing emotive buttons rather than presenting balance, varied opinions or challenging ideas.
He starts to represent the very thing he was railing against.
Director Ivo Van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld's production will be familiar to anyone who's seen recent work - segments are filmed and broadcast on a big screen.
Initially I was disappointed to see the similar set up - there is an on stage café too - it's a production device that is beginning to feel 'done'. But given this is play set in a TV studio, the filming and camera crew does feel appropriate and works well for the story.
Having members of the audience eating dinner on stage does, however, feel like an unnecessary gimmick and a distraction. I'm sure there are other ways of integrating two brief restaurant scenes into the piece.
This a minor quibble given the quality of the production and play overall. It's a piece that is not only engaging and entertaining, it's a piece with startling relevance that will leave you thinking about it long after you've left the theatre.
Network is on the Lyttelton stage at the National Theatre in rep until 24 March and its two hours without an interval. It's sold out but you can still get tickets through Friday Rush, day seats and possibly returns.
* Note on seating: If you want to interact with Howard and have the experience filmed and flashed up on the big screen for all to see, then the middle of the second row is the place to be.