By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The word “prescient” has been floating over the Citadel for weeks now, threading through rehearsals for the play getting its Canadian premiere Thursday on the Shoctor stage.
It’s attached to a (very) dark comedy satire about our complicated, toxic relationship with the media — and the media’s complicated, toxic relationship with news, truth, and showbiz.
Network, the Citadel 2022-2023 season opener directed by Daryl Cloran, started life as a movie (with an Oscar-winning screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky) that is, amazingly, nearly half a century old. Fully 45 years later, Network was turned into a West End and Broadway stage hit starring Bryan Cranston as an inflammable TV anchor, in a 2017 stage adaptation by the Brit playwright Lee Hall and directed by the Belgian avant-gardiste Ivo van Hove.
And now, after a couple of years of COVID-ian delays, Network’s first post-Broadway production, a high-tech 16-actor collaboration between the Citadel and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, is close at hand.
Prescient: there’s that word. “It’s so prescient in so many ways!” declares Jim Mezon, the veteran Shaw Festival star actor/director who inherits the role of UBS network anchor Howard Beale, owner of the echoing cry “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this any more.”
“All you have to do is open the paper (or, more probably, look at your assorted screens) and there’s another news story that has a direct relationship with this play,” says Mezon who was “a young actor in Winnipeg when he saw Network for the first time. “It had a huge impact on me, in so many ways. From that initial shock of seeing what that medium could and might possibly do….”
“Fifty years ago, and a lot of it has come true. What does that say about us as a species that we’ve allowed that to happen?” He muses, “I don’t think we’d thought of it in those terms till Chayefsky showed up and wrote it….” It’s like (Chayefsky’s) Hospital, a dark and stinging satire of medical practice, that way, Mezon thinks. “These institutions are minefields.”
“For something written in the ‘70s, before cellphones and social media, it really is amazingly prescient,” says Cloran. “So accurate in depicting our very complicated relationship with the media….” Fifty years of technological complication in defining and delivering “news” have ensued, and the internet has pretty much squelched television in that regard, but “the story of Network has only become more relevant, more timely.”
“The show is very specifically set in the 1970s; all references to current events are ‘70s. But you don’t have to work very hard to find contemporary equivalents, for sure,” notwithstanding the proliferation (and splintering) of media platforms. As if to illustrate his point, rehearsals started on the very day a TV anchor controversy erupted; ITV and the sacking of Lisa LaFlamme. As Cloran points out, public reliance on big networks may have diminished now “and we engage with the screen in multiple ways … but there are just more screens; the corporate manoeuvring is exactly the same.”
Network chronicles the fortunes of veteran TV news anchor Howard Beale at the hands of corporate executives; he’s the guinea pig for the lurking question of just how far media will go for ratings, likes, and clicks. When ratings tank, Howard Beale gets the boot. And when he has a spectacular nervous breakdown on live TV and threatens to commit suicide on television in front of millions, ratings soar.
As Mezon reflects, where is the line between news and entertainment, between “reporting” the news and creating it? Network is all about that. From the corporate point of view, “how can we use a situation to our advantage and get better ratings? — at the expense of the truth, at the expense of a person’s mental well-being. Howard Beale is clearly unbalanced, a man who’s having severe mental problems. And he’s exploited because they’re going to increase ratings….”
“So much of Howard Beale’s initial rants is about the individual standing up to the corporation,” as Cloran says. “People unthinkingly ‘consuming’ the media: they think what the media tells them to think; they eat what the media tells them to eat … not dissimilar now.”
How do you sustain a character who’s on fire with rage? Mezon, who’s played some of the biggest roles in the canon at Shaw and across the country, says “the anger Howard has inside him is recognizable to me, from other parts I’ve played” — Captain Shotover in Shaw’s Heartbreak House, Undershaft in Major Barbara, Peer Gynt among them (“the biggest mountain I’ve ever climbed”).
“It’s easy for me to enter into that anger, to understand where it’s coming from…. Howard Beale isn’t calling for revolution; he’s calling for people to acknowledge they’re fed up. They need to say ‘I’ve had enough’ instead of just accepting another blow. They need to get mad. Once you’re mad enough, we’ll figure out what to do.” The energy output required is high, true, Mezon says. “But the adrenalin you get from it is really satisfying!”
As Cloran said in announcing the Citadel season, this first post-Broadway incarnation of Network was deliberately pitched to the rights-holders as reimagining the big-budget techno spectacle to be do-able for regional theatres across the continent. It’s a big, complicated production, though, full of screens, cameras, live footage. “I’m directing a stage play and a movie at the same time,” says Cloran. He’s experienced in film and video editing for theatre, “but this is the most techno-filled production I’ve directed.”
He explains that there are three cameras, and video operators onstage the whole time (“we’ve had them all through rehearsal”). “In staging a scene there are so many choices. When do we want the audience to look at the stage? When do we want the audience to look at the screen? When do we want them to be overwhelmed by images, and when do we want the intimacy of people talking to each other onstage?” Some scenes are staged with the actors’ backs to the audience; we see their faces, in close up, on screens.
That variation in distance and scale of performance, for theatrical and film sequences, makes for a demanding acting challenge, as Cloran says. “We often have those conversations: ‘who am I acting to? what’s my primary focus here, the 700 people out there, or the camera?’” One thing’s for sure, he says. “We’re aware of the audience. They’ll definitely feel they are present at a live event, and we know they’re there.”
“I think people are going to be surprised by what they see…. As people have popped in to rehearsal, everyone’s been pretty thrilled. It’s a great, complicated, interesting story, but also the way we tell it is pretty fantastic.”
Theatre: Citadel and Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
Written by: Lee Hall, adapted from the 1976 movie with screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky
Directed by: Daryl Cloran
Starring: Jim Mezon
Running: Thursday through Oct. 9
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com