When I was doing my mock GCSEs about a billion years ago, I got 96% in the chemistry paper (stick with me, I promise this is going somewhere). Seeing my smug smile, my teacher, the fabulously named Mr Mann, decided to burst my bubble with a pithy “no one likes a smart arse, Williams”.
(Mr Mann was actually a great teacher by the way. He was a serving Territorial Army officer of German descent, with the most incredibly mangled accent, whose teaching methods regularly included armwrestling, wandering around the room picking up stuff off students’ desks with tongs and setting things on fire without warning whenever the mood took him. We had a long running argument about whether manatees were just fat dolphins. But I digress.)
I recall this anecdote now because ‘no one likes a smart arse’ seems a perfect summation of my feelings about Network, the NT’s new Ivo van Hove directed adaptation of the film of the same name. It is such a smart arse of a production; clever, yes, but so fucking self satisfied about it.
Let’s tackle this one head on. I’ve decided I’m done with Ivo van Hove. After his blisteringly good View from the Bridge a few years ago, each subsequent production of his I’ve seen I’ve liked less and I know exactly why. See, van Hove is a director who treads a very fine line between stylish substance and style over substance. View from the Bridge worked because it was firmly the former: it was visually striking and extremely stylized but stripped back in a way that allowed the acting and the text to shine through. Network is firmly the latter: there is so much going on and so little of it for any non-aesthetic reason. It adds nothing to the onstage action, often actively taking away from it. It makes for a deeply frustrating evening. At worst, it’s just pretentious.
My major bugbear is the constant use and boring over reliance on video in the production. This is a play based on a film starring one of the most famous screen actors of his generation. If I wanted to watch it or him on a screen I would have stayed at home. I can’t work out what the video is supposed to add when it's used with the regularity it is here. Some of the visual effects it generates are undoubtedly stunning and it is occasionally used to zoom in on the face of a character not in the main action which allows for an interesting reaction shot but beyond that? If it was used sparingly it would probably be quite effective but it's not. It's used all the time. You almost forget you're actually watching a play at times.
There are other things that irritate me because they're unnecessary too. The onstage restaurant adds literally nothing to the action other than providing some free extras in the restaurant and bar-set scenes (and presumably a bit of extra cash for the NT coffers). The tiny bit of thrust stage is used so literally it's like being punched in the face. The presence of a live band is at best no more effective than a recording and at worst actively distracting. The attempts at audience engagement are so wooden they become painful.
With so much of this stuff you get the feeling that it's included for one reason: because Ivo van Hove thought it was clever. And that's not enough for me. Fairly or not, I left the theatre actually quite angry at having spent two hours (which is too long) indulging him.
I also felt quite angry on behalf of other elements of the production. Because there are some really good things happening here if you can look past all the fluff. The 'I'm mad as hell' scene is actually really well done and gave me goosebumps. The scenes that are fluffless, such as the subplot about two of the TV execs having an affair, are good too. The writing is punchy, topical and quick, if a bit preachy, though the same issues are covered infinitely better by James Graham in both Ink and Quiz. There is no denying that the production looks stunning, especially the polished copper reflective floor which allows for some amazing visuals and fascinating perspectives on the action. And ultimately, for all my moaning, there is also no denying that the technical virtuosity involved in making this production work in even the most basic sense is phenomenal. If you're interested in how theatre is physically made, it's a fascinating production to watch.
There is some great acting going on amidst the screens too. Bryan Cranston in particular is fantastic; a piece of completely perfect casting if ever there was one. He is totally compelling as Howard, mixing the required blend of cynicism, anger, emotional depth and straight forward charisma to make this character both utterly credible and utterly sympathetic. I wish I’d been allowed to spend more time watching him just on a stage though rather than on a screen. There’s strong support across a necessarily huge cast. I particularly rated Douglas Henshall as Howard's mess of a friend Max. He brings some much needed heart and pathos to proceedings and is fantastic in the production’s rare quiet moments. Tunji Kassim is a revelation (to me) as the Machiavellian network boss Frank Hackett, exploding with rage and machismo. I couldn’t stop watching him whenever he was on the stage and his interplay with both Cranston and Henshall was really exciting to watch.
I am genuinely interested to see what audiences (not professional critics, who I’m 99% sure will obsess over this one) make of Network. I think it will be a pretty Marmite production that will generate strong feelings on all sides. For me, it’s just frustrating. There’s so much good going on here. I just wish it wasn’t dressed up in so much Ivo van Hove-ness. My fleeting affair with Dutch avant garde is, I fear, over.
Network is in the Lyttelton theatre at the NT until 24th March. The entire run is sold out but day tickets, returns and Friday Rush tickets are available.