By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Before memes became meme-ish, when the medical profession had sole ownership of “viral,” there was the scene in Network, the Paddy Chayefsky film of 50 years ago, in which a veteran TV anchor declared “I’m mad as hell. And I’m not going to take this any more.” At that moment Howard Beale, madman, or prophet, or martyr, or all three, gave the television age its very own “to be or not to be” as he lit himself on fire with his own rage.
In an explosively charismatic, riveting performance by Jim Mezon, Howard Beale goes live on the stage and a dizzying assortment of screens, in the 2017 Lee Hall play, a hit in the West End and then on Broadway, that cracks open the new Citadel season with a mighty roar.
It can rightly be said that Network hits the stage in Daryl Cloran’s high-tech production. It’s a mesmerizing barrage, a multi-screen bombardment of multiplying, mutating imagery, a whirling mélange of ads for cat food and band-aids, news clips, sports footage, sitcom scenes. Real people and cameras, the instruments of surveillance, are right there perpetually moving through the red-alert world of Lorenzo Savoini’s set, obliterating the distinction between all of the above before your very eyes. And a big player is Hugh Conacher’s wonderfully hyperactive video design.
Meanwhile the lines between so-called “real life” and screen capture shimmer into oblivion: no scene, whether sexual encounter or marriage breakdown or argument, is too intimate not to exist simultaneously in 3-D and close-up in 2- on a screen. And very often it’s the latter that grabs our attention.
Which is, after all, one of the points of Network — the dehumanizing effect of non-stop media assault — that remain sharp as ever after half a century. “We’ll tell you any shit you want to hear,” cries Howard Beale in one of the extended rants that Mezon delivers so compellingly. “We deal in illusions, man…. We lie like hell.” Taken from Chayefsky’s screenplay more or less directly it is a harbinger of “fake news” and alternative facts.
The other, of course — enraging both the Beale of 1976 and the Beale onstage at the Citadel in 2022 — is the vanishing point of truth and ethics in the corporatizing of “news,” and its re-creation and re-packaging as entertainment in the relentless pursuit of ratings. “We’re not in the business of morality; we’re in the business of business,” states the ruthless careerist TV producer Diana Christiansen, dismissing ethical objections to exploiting terrorism, or Howard’s apparent derangement, with the steely shrug of someone reporting that the law of gravity is in operation. She’s played with carnivorous obsessiveness — talk of market share as the ultimate aphrodisiac — by the excellent Alanna Hawley-Purvis.
So, the story: At UBS (say it aloud and you’ll get the point) network, the ratings are tanking, and longtime TV anchor Howard Beale gets canned. When he has a spectacular meltdown on live TV and threatens to blow his brains out, ratings soar. And when he appears on the set in his pajamas, and exhorts his audience to rise up, stick their heads out the window and yell “I’m mad as hell!” the network boomerangs him back into his job. “We’ve hit the motherlode!” gloats Diana.
In a series of messianic rants, Howard Beale becomes a media superstar. And Network, as a satire of very dark stripe, savours the irony that the ratings explode upward even when he denounces the network’s quest for ratings. Ah, until there’s a slide. And Beale becomes “this Beale business,” a thorn in everyone’s side.
You can’t not watch Mezon. His blazing eyes and his booming voice follow you everywhere on a multitude of screens in this convulsive performance. Watchable, too, is Alex Poch-Goldin, very persuasive as Max, the beleaguered UBS news director who’s Howard’s best friend. The subplot in which Max’s own decency erodes enough for him to betray his wife (Nadien Chu) with the tiger who wants his job does seem a little improbable, in truth. So does Hacket, a shark-like upwardly mobile exec, who’s a (loud) one-note panic attack in Richard Young’s performance.
There are some intriguing cameos. The fun of Brayden Dowler-Coltman as a preposterously athletic warm-up guy who engages directly with us is a welcome reminder that Network is meant to be a comedy. And so is Michael Peng as the inscrutable network chief Mr. Jensen, who has risen above (or maybe below) the fray.
What starts in satire (a concept that continues to be eroded by “reality” over and over in the modern age) ends in something else altogether, in the contemporary nuances that this stage adaptation brings to Network.
Network doesn’t date itself amidst the modern proliferation of screens, or even the disappearance of both fact and truth, and television as the authority that underpins them. No one believes that, which works fine in translating the movie 50 years into its future as a play. Lies and hypocrisy as media fodder, and corporate manoeuvring to wrap that thin diet sensationally, are part of the movie’s eerie prescience.
But the play must (and in its way does) take into account the downside of advocating for mass populist anger, which hasn’t exactly provided a salutary social corrective. The rise of extremism amongst (scary) people who got mad has seen to that. Discuss!
In the play, and Mezon’s performance, Beale’s journey into madness takes him from fiercely validating the humanity of the individual to the opposite, to a sense that our future lies in collectivism — we are all just bees in a hive — and beyond, into thoughts about absolutism and democracy. It’s a more elusive, and sometimes perplexing, work than the movie. And I have to admit there was a moment when it all started to get away from me.
But the theatrical zest and smarts of Cloran’s production in conjuring the frenzied world of media are irresistible. Network does feel like an immersive experience, a reflection of the way we live, assailed from every direction at high speed. Howard Beale may be crazy but he’s one of us.
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: through Oct. 9
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com