Foodwork: A Brechtian Dining Experience

Phil Morris forks out for the upgrade, as he takes on the full dining experience of Ivo van Hove’s immersive version of Network at the Royal National Theatre, Lyttleton in London.

In Shakespeare’s olde tyme Globe Theatre a young gallant (an Elizabethan Hipster with equal pretension but less facial hair) would eschew sitting in a posh box, where according to Thomas Dekker “much new satin is damned by being smothered to death in darkness” and opt instead to sit on the edge of the stage where he could make as much of a spectacle of himself as the play he had come to see. The National Theatre’s production of Network, adapted by Lee Hall from the celebrated 1976 film scripted by Paddy Chayevksy, offers the contemporary theatre-goer a similar opportunity of sitting onstage – lording it over proles who can afford only stall seats – with the added decadence of an accompanying five-course meal. The Wales Arts Review expense account might run to an occasional packet of Quavers or a small bottle of Brecon Carreg spring-water, so my entree to the unique dining experience that is Foodwork was paid entirely out of my own pocket. That line was written in the same spirit of self-reflexive ostentation that inspired me to secure my tickets via an online ballot, and stride onto the Lyttleton stage as both a diner and living piece of stage furniture.

An email directed me and my wife to a private NT entrance from where, like Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas, we were escorted through a warren of corridors, out of the wings and into the glare of white theatrical light. I ordered myself a ‘Mad as Hell’ cocktail (Bulleit bourbon, ginger wine, Cocchi Americano and sugar lemon) and was then invited to ‘walk the set’ and take pictures – because nothing ever happens nowadays unless it’s captured on a smart-phone and posted on all your social media platforms. As I stood gazing out into an empty auditorium – pondering the sorry turn my life had taken leading me to be there as a moneyed punter rather than striving thesp – my wife elbowed me in the ribs and hissed, “Isn’t that Bryan Cranston being made-up over there?” With a studio-set clock ticking down to the beginning of the play, the cast of Network had indeed emerged onstage to comb through their luxuriant side-burns, and buzz with the excitement of a TV newsroom in an age when television really mattered and Donald Trump was a mere twinkle in Roy Cohn’s evil eye.

First course at Foodwork is crispy kale and shallots on a butternut squash puree; served as other audience members shuffle in and find themselves confronted with a range of large screens relaying seventies news footage and Coke ads – plus the disappointment of having their privilege of a hot ticket diminished by the prospect of ticket-holders with even greater privilege, enjoying a more intimate viewing spot with a glass of Rocco Sangiovese. This arrangement of hierarchies has little to do with commercial imperatives; given the extra overheads of an on-stage working kitchen, busily attentive waiting staff and unavoidable insurance premiums, Foodwork cannot be much of a profit generator. (It should also be noted that Network sold out its entire run in a matter of days.) Clearly, the installation of a functioning restaurant to run alongside an excoriating polemic against corporate greed, over-fed American consumerism and class warfare, was an aesthetic decision made by director van Hove. A conclusion that seems inescapable as Howard Beale, a balefully world-weary Cranston, announces on-air his intention to “blow my brains out” in front of an audience of millions, while I tuck into a fresh, zesty Portland crab cocktail replete with peeled cherry tomatoes braised in olive oil and garlic.

Exquisite fine-dining and fine acting from an Oscar-nominated star are not the only joys to be had at Foodwork however, there are also the delicious thrills of proximity and vicarious celebrity. As Beale bemoans the dumbing-down of America – which incredibly seems to have pre-dated the invention of the internet – over drinks with an old friend in the Foodwork bar, a live video-feed to the back wall presents the distinctly self-affirming image of the back of this critic’s head sandwiched between the faces of Cranston and Douglas Henshall, of BBC’s Scottish-Isles-noir series Shetland.

Chayevksy’s original film-script was inspired, in part, by the real-life on-screen suicide of American local news-anchor Christine Chubbuck, who turned her gun on herself, “in keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts”. Like the film, the play explores our endless fascination with celebrity and with talking heads, the later having now extended beyond television to Facetime, Snapchat and YouTube. The integration of video within van Hove’s production, artfully realised by Tal Yarden, is something of a triumph in its exploration of how our current understanding(s) of reality is being mediated, and often corrupted, by digital media. There are several moments when the audience of diners are able to glimpse themselves framed by cameras within the action of the play, particularly as an unravelling Beale stalks among us like a “modern day Savanarola” erecting a bonfire of our own vanities. At a climactic point in the play the entire Lyttleton audience is put up on screen – an audience watching itself watching itself watching itself. The technical achievement of Network is impressive, in one scene Max Schumacher (Henshall) and his monstrous protégé Diana Christenson (Michelle Dockery) are filmed in a live tracking shot that begins outside the National Theatre building and which traces them up to the stage and an empty dinner table. As Diana enthuses about the ratings success of her pioneering (and prophetic) ‘reality TV’ shows, she mounts Henshall’s lap and writhes breathlessly over him. My excitement at witnessing Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary simulate sex three-feet from me as I tucked into a short rib and ox-cheek bourguignon had an inevitable parallel with that of the character, even more intensely once I realised that I too was in the scene shown on video-screen.

This self-referential aspect to watching Network, with the additional self-indulgence of a Foodwork gin-and-tonic sorbet followed by a rather good cheese-board, became for me the principal enjoyment and interest in the play. Chayevsky’s text has proved uncannily accurate in its cautionary premonition of mass manipulation and induced mass-docility through engineered ‘reality’ shows and fictionalised news reportage. Unfortunately, such prescience has lost the power to shock or provoke for we’ve now lived too long in the very world that the film foresaw. Hove’s attempt to implicate us, through the use of technology, as viewers complicit in our own deception, certainly opens the text up as a theatrical spectacle, but it adds little in the way of substance to current debates regarding the veracity and integrity of our modern media. Perhaps what is required is less an adaptation of the original film, but rather a complete re-imagining of Network for the Twitter generation and their President who can make and un-make the news seemingly at will.

The ensemble playing of the company is passionate and convincing, with Cranston and Dockery, in particular, achieving the difficult feat of giving performances that work for both stage and screen. The American accents of this mainly British cast hardly waiver and the period feel of the piece is admirably sustained throughout. Yet the commitment of the actors is not enough to render this stage adaptation the sense of urgency and relevance it appears to strive for. Lee Hall’s adaptation is broadly faithful to Chayevsky, with some added emphasis on several by-the-numbers jeremiads against the unseen forces of global finance and the anti-democratic power of multi-national corporations, but these seem neither to surprise nor challenge the liberal assumptions of the NT’s progressively-minded audience. At the end of the play, footage is screened of successive American presidents being sworn-in, a loud cheer for Obama is swiftly followed by a loud jeer at the sight of Trump. A Foodwork waiter informed me that this happens at every single performance without fail. While I sympathise with anti-Trump sentiment, surely this type of hegemonic response is antithetical to truly engaged political theatre? What would be truly revolutionary in this current era of neo-nationalist Brexiteers and resurgent fascism is a play that explained just how the free flow of capital and people in a globalised economy works to foster cooperation between countries and strengthen international institutions. Similarly, whereas the film Network warned against television having too much influence, our problem now is that news programmes have too limited a capacity to hold politicians to account, and are all too easily dismissed as fake.

This stage version of Network has slick production values and expert technical execution, but as topical satire it is somewhat predictable and unsatisfying. As a dining experience, however, Foodwork is rich and spectacular. If Hove had only better channelled the spirit of Brecht, he might have invited those in the cheap seats to jeer at us plutocratic diners, or at least caused us to choke on our cheese and crackers.


Network is in repertory at the Royal National Theatre until March 24th