If Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film Network was the story of the television generation, then Ivo van Hove’s stage production, using an adaptation by Lee Hall, is the story of the Twitter generation. That comment is intended to cover not just the obvious parallels between the two eras, each gorging on their requisite forms of shiny, new, anger-inducing media, but the multi-functioning elements of the staging itself.
Van Hove’s Network is the visual and audio equivalent of the ever-rolling Twitter feed. Scrap that. It’s the audio and visual equivalent of a multi-tab browser window simultaneously open onto Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and the Guardian’s live news feed. Its brilliance resides in recreating the multisensory overload of fragmented reality consumed by a generation that, according to a report in the November 4th edition of The Economist, touch their phones on average 2,600 times a day. Fittingly, the experience of watching it is an intoxicating combination of awed appreciation for the person that created it and a slightly nauseated horror that grows larger the longer your eyes stay locked on it. Sort of like using Apple products, really.
Here is a play methodically designed for audience members with the attention span of a toddler – meaning: all of us. And caring Uncle Ivo gives us all the toys we could possibly want. There are video screens, privileged views into the glass-boxed behind-the-scenes area of a television studio, a big countdown clock (they’re always fun, aren’t they?) and even some audience interaction in the style of a pantomime for nihilists. But if that isn’t enough to amuse your eyes, then you can amuse your bouche too by being part of the interactive onstage dining experience. Served Instagrammable plates including (obviously) kale by Instagrammable identikit waitresses in Instagrammable teal jumpsuits, diners get their own screen on the left-hand wall of the stage to watch the action on.
The proximity of those eating to the live action might make a giant screen seem unnecessary, but the singularly most important point of this play is the use of screens. Watching the people eating becomes, for those in the auditorium, a sport in itself. Like when my phone lights up when I’m midway through typing (it just did it then), your eyes are misdirected from where they should be to the peripheral action. There are real actors on a real stage but the impulse to wonder what would happened if someone spilt Cavolo Nero down their front is too much to resist. Watching the diners, however, serves a purpose other than nosiness. As you watch them, you realise that they in turn watch the video screen high on the wall beyond, even when the performers are sitting smack bang in the middle of the dining area. So we watch the diners watching a screen that at times includes their own images alongside that of the actors. [At which point the telescoping wormhole of modern existence collapses in on itself and we return home to silently sob and then Tweet about it. Probably.]
Network is crammed, on first glance, with gimmick upon gimmick – or is it? Because the very point here is that these multiple screens, loud noises, flashing colours, chances to ‘be part of the action’ are indeed very real gimmicks. Van Hove’s deliberate manipulation of the shards of digitised existence is not in itself gimmickry. Instead, it’s a depressingly astute deconstruction of disconnection. Modern technology is marketed as a means of keeping people perennially connected, but the recurrent motifs of Van Hove’s production are separation and fragmentation. This is most overt with the aforementioned video screens. Along with the left-hand screen for the diners, there’s also a large, dominant screen at the back of the stage facing into the auditorium that projects, among other things, the broadcasted footage of the performance onstage (Robert Icke’s Hamlet contained a similar moment when the royal family are filmed watching The Mousetrap and this was broadcast live to the audience). As the onstage eaters prove, given the chance to watch real humans or films of humans, the pull towards the screen is almost irresistible. But allow yourself to flick freely between the two and it becomes clear that the different elements don’t quite match up. There’s a slight, almost imperceptible, delay between hearing the words spoken and witnessing both the movements of the actor onstage and the image onscreen. A disconnection that becomes increasingly disconcerting the more it is witnessed. Doubts about what is ‘real’ slowly multiply before exploding in one chilling moment when the image onscreen and the action below entirely separate. What was assumed to be live footage is revealed as recorded and two versions of television news presenter Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston) are pealed away from each other like jewelled shapes in a Kaleidoscope.
The splintered self is returned to at other moments when the filming of parts of the stage including the screen leads to an endless tunnel of Howard Beales, the equivalent of what happens when mirrors are uses to create reflections in reflections. As Beale stages his coup against everything from broadcast news to the whims of Fate, a solid version of the man is made impossible to pinpoint. Network is most effective, in fact, when using stagecraft to make theoretical points about our increasingly slippery foothold in the muddy world of internet-based existence.
The rub is that in its genius lies its integral flaw; by so accurately depicting human disconnection, Network eliminates arguably the most important point of live theatre and storytelling per se. With so many other things to focus on, the underlying plot and the humans in it are often obscured – which is intellectually easy to appreciate as ‘the point’ of the production, but emotionally frustrating to actually watch. Some plot strands suffer more than others. The decision to make Cranston’s Beale far more palpably vulnerable than Peter Finch in the original film is inspired; amplifying the discomforting suggestion that a mentally unwell man is being exploited in his breakdown whilst those surrounding him just keep watching their screens; Cranston’s impressive magnetism lies in him being less raging, and more quietly unravelling. The relationship between Diana Christensen (Michelle Dockery) and Max Schumacher (Douglas Henshall), however, contains a woeful lack of chemistry and is mainly memorable for involving a sex scene so devoid of eroticism it could be used in abstinence propaganda.
But instead of concentrating on a play’s minor flaws, let us instead turn our attention to the question of what can be done to combat the disjointed screen-on-screen world that Chayefsky’s film and Van Hove’s staging so convincingly capture. Perhaps you clicked on this article through a link on Twitter. Well, fuck Twitter. Get up out of your chairs and read something other than Twitter. In one of Beale’s monologues, he claims that less than 3% of the Americans he speaks to read books. It might be that you’ve forgotten how to do that, or don’t know where to start, so allow me to generously suggest a title I recently enjoyed after deleting the Twitter app from my phone:
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
The judges of the Man Booker International Prize got to this party four years before me, so I’m only here to say that it’s worth every bit of hype ever heaped on it. I picked it up because it had words like ‘female’, ‘body’ and ‘eroticism’ on the cover, and put it down feeling hollow from reading what is actually an achingly beautiful study of disintegration and (why not, since we’re on the topic) human connection.
You could read The Vegetarian, or you could read something else (I was advised last night that The Tin Drum by Günter Grass is well worth investing in). Or you could find someone to have a better version of sex with than the sorry little hump that Diana and Max endure. Read books, have sex, get off Twitter, or even (Heaven forbid) go to the theatre: isn’t that what E. M. Forster meant when he said, only connect?
Network is on until 24 March 2018 at the National Theatre. Click here for more details.