Jan Versweyveld: 'You can feel the adrenaline pumping in Network'

Ivo van Hove’s long-term collaborator Jan Versweyveld explains their approach to ”Network” and how they came to having people eating in a restaurant onstage

A scene from Network
A scene from Network
© Jan Versweyveld

I watched the movie of Network when it first came out, but I didn’t want to watch it again for this. Seeing all the jumps in locations – from apartment, to studio, to funeral, to street – I would get panic attacks! But reading the script you can see how big a challenge it is. I think there’s nearly 40 scenes.

The way we have approached the theatre set of Network is about focusing on the world of a news anchor. What I tried to do is to combine the three parts of his life onstage: the central part is the recording studio, where he can reach the world, then on the left there is the people working in the studio – preparing the broadcasts – then on the right is his social world, his private world.

The pace of Network feels like adrenaline pumping.

In the middle is an empty floor, and at the back in the centre there is a big television screen. The screen is the way the people in the auditorium can look at the production in a different way. It’s not only the broadcast that we see on those screens, we also switch to other parts of the set, which are not necessarily visible for everyone. So you see the news but you also see the dynamics of how people react to each other. From this perspective I think you could compare it with the Roman Tragedies, although the pace is much more hysterical. There is a certain speed to this production. It feels like adrenaline pumping.

There are tables onstage, where audience members eat dinner, and that’s part of the social aspect. We actually also had a similar thing in the Roman Tragedies, but that is a coincidence. We’ve only ever done that then and now with Network. I think one of the more important reasons have the audience there works is about the relationship between the actors and the audience onstage.

You can feel the actors getting more and more nervous as they approach the point when there are people at tables. Which is exactly what we want. It’s not only the audience watching through the eye of the people in the piece, but it’s also the actors. For the actors it’s much more an installation or a happening. It has layers of meaning. We are trying to make this a borderless production: it goes everywhere. The people at tables are invited to take their seats 45 minutes before the show starts so they get to watch what the actors are doing before the show – they are warming up and getting used to the space.

The biggest challenge was the lighting design

From the moment we started talking about the design, Anthony Newton the production manager was so enthusiastic about it. There were no difficulties but there were challenges, the biggest of which was the light design. We decided to have a very shiny floor, then there are 45 people onstage, then a lot of video projections so it was very hard to light up the space without reflecting off all these things.

When we first planned the show, we knew we needed a studio. But one of the biggest questions was whether we were choosing naturalism, or considering it to be more like a Greek tragedy. It has maybe become a combination of Greek tragedy and certain realism. We also knew there would be a lot of video and Tal Yarden our video designer was with us in the meetings at the very beginning. We have been preparing for this for a long time and I have great associates and a great production manager. So there were no problems.

Network opens at the National Theatre on November 13, with previews from now, and runs until 24 March.