National Theatre, London – until 23 March 2018
The question when adapting Paddy Chayefsky’s blistering attack on ‘70s television news and the media’s propensity toward sensationalism and exploitation, is one of relevance. Does the story of Howard Beale, “the mad prophet of the airwaves”, still speak to us in an age when we curate our own content and imagine we’re no longer beholden to the commercial imperatives of media conglomerates with a monopoly on our attention?
Ivo van Hove’s production, starring Bryan Cranston in the iconic Peter Finch role, makes the case for itself by inviting audience identification with Beale’s angry, uncensored, unedited, uncorroborated stream of consciousness – a comic conceit and satirical novelty in the 1976 film; eerily evocative of the self-appointed seers online, now.
In 2017 Beale looks like the blueprint for Infowars’s Alex Jones and his sad ilk; anti-establishment furies driven by anomie, self-righteous indignation, paranoia and a messianic compulsion to preach to the duped and docile masses. Chayefsky’s stupendous joke is their manifesto.
Network, inspired by the real world on-air suicide of depressed Florida TV reporter Christine Chubbuck – a woman who decried the local station’s taste for “blood and guts” before shooting herself in the head, was once a lament for TV’s dehumanising, fear-stoking imperative. Now it asks, where did all that impotent rage, unleashed by Howard, go? A compilation of presidential inaugurations at the close, ending on you-know-who, suggests an answer.
Hove’s adaptation straddles two eras, then – the world of ‘70s US Network news, with ad breaks between segments for coffee sniffed by Roy Scheider, and new cars, and the sleeker, multi-platform media landscape of today. Consequently, the impressive set, centred by a giant screen to which live reports and blocked scenes are transmitted, and flanked by a director’s booth and working restaurant, falls between two stools. Appropriately, it gives us a show structured and timed with the precision of live television, utilising outside broadcast, video inserts and the like, but it doesn’t convince as a period backdrop. Despite sops to the era – the dress, the sexual politics, this is a fully-integrated digital studio, required to make the show work. Transitions to vintage commercials and news footage ground talk of petro-dollars, hikes in oil prices and plane hijackings – the mid-70’s zeitgeist.
Perhaps that’s the point; what plagued Chayefsky back when, has simply found new expression and a multiplicity of outlets, now. Consequently, Cranston’s take on Howard Beale, more melancholy and resigned than Peter Finch’s high-energy, manic and above all else, urgent performance, is better suited to the times. Finch’s Beale looked forward in anticipation and horror. Cranston’s adopts a little of the audience’s media literacy and weariness from all the narcissism, baseless bile and idiocy lurking in every nook of their digital lives, and transmits it back. That voice he hears just might be the future.
Ultimately, the story of Howard Beale remains a challenge to think for oneself, while being vigilant against the interests of those who package and disseminate information for our delectation. In short, contrary to Howard’s advice, this NT production reminds you that there’s never been a worse time to switch off.