The first rule of news is you never become the news,’ says network president, Frank Hackett (Tunji Kasim) to his recently-fired news anchor, Howard Beale, after he promises viewers to commit suicide on live TV. But that wont stop Beale. In fact, before long, no one in the studio seems to want to. Such is the hunger for high ratings.
Brought to life by a galvanising Bryan Cranston (of Breaking Bad fame), Howard Beale becomes a messiah figure for indiscriminate rage. ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore’ is the mantra growled at on-stage cameras, the cast, and the audience, who he goads to join him. With electrifying monologues, he teeters between sneers about American worries – violence, unemployment rates, democracy, Russians – and vulnerable whispers about his own mental health.
Beale’s powerful emotions and Cranston’s own personal fame masterfully distract from the real mechanics at play. The true madness is slowly revealed behind the scenes among the executives of the failing news channel. ‘The audience out there obviously wants a prophet, even a manufactured one,’ exclaims TV executive Diane Christensen (Michelle Dockery), ‘but by tomorrow he’ll have a 50 share, maybe even a 60 share.’ Swap ‘shares’ for ‘likes’ and the script is almost as prophetic as it was in 1976.
The play’s anxiety over the power of TV is where it feels its age a little. The majority of under-50s in the United States access the news online, according to research by the Pew Institute, and in 2016, Variety reported that young Americans watch 2.5 times more internet video than TV. The internet has multiplied sources of media, while technology has diversified how we watch it. Media is consumed in the masses, yes, but through individual silos that fulfil individual tastes, often to the script of algorithms that cannot always tell real from fake.
Network is not completely able to tackle these issues with its original script. However, in its way, it acknowledges the shared experience of media with its ‘I’m mad as hell’ scene when hundreds of selfies fill the stage’s screens. It is a chorus of rage that just becomes noise. Perhaps social media has made flailing news broadcasters out of all of us.
The staging is as vital to this show as the acting. Cameras record conversations from all angles and rolling advertisements compete for attention on screens of all sizes. As a piece of theatre, Network picks apart the idea of a television studio in ways the film could not. The studio, with its bright centre and dark edges, adds to a sense of being in a vacuum. Such a nowhere place fits Richard Cordery’s corporate CEO’s tirade to Beale: ‘You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations, there are no peoples, there are no Russians, there are no Arabs, there is no West... the world is a college of corporations.’ What results is a devastating critique of the modern global media as a tool that gets us nowhere and leaves us there too. It is a huge success.