Catch 22

Joseph Heller
Northern Stage
Northern Stage, Newcastle

Chris Price as Milo and Philip Arditti as Yossarian in Catch-22 Credit: Topher McGrillis
Geoff Arnold Philip Arditti and Daniel Ainsworth in Catch-22 Credit: Topher McGrillis
Philip Arditti Chris Price David Webber and Geoff Arnold in Catch-22 Credit: Topher McGrillis

Joseph Heller’s brilliantly anarchic, scabrous, riotous and subversive novel Catch 22 exploded onto the world in 1961. For many of our restless generation, it was as much a marker as that other Catch, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

We always suspected the military world was full of bungling calculating heartless bastards and here was the proof—and what great fun we could have confirming it!

So why is the book virtually unknown on stage? Heller adapted it for theatre ten years after publication but without much success. There’s been a lack of marked appetite to stage his text in the ensuing 40 years, only partially explained, I suspect, by the large cast list of 29.

Also, Heller has been reluctant to allow any other writer to adapt, hence the impasse. He did relinquish the film rights to director Mike Nichols for the 1970 cinema version where the screenplay was written by Buck Henry. The film was critically well-received. Maybe Heller should have done the same for the stage. Novels and plays (and films) are all different animals.

The phrase Catch 22 is among the few contemporary novel titles in common parlance—it’s even in the OED where it’s defined as "a difficult situation from where there is no escape because it involves mutually conflicting or despondent conditions".

Yossarian (Philip Arditti)is the American World War Two bombardier stationed in Italy determined to save his skin and be sent home. But his claims for insanity (which, if true, would see him discharged) are rejected via the rule that a fear of death is rational, so only the sane could ask to be grounded. But of course, the sane need not apply—permission denied. This impossible ‘catch’ serves as the title.

On this absurdism, an entire 550-page novel is built as is the Northern Stage production, directed, (curiously enough for this highly male story), by a woman, New York theatre director Rachel Chavkin.

The true irony of Catch 22 is that while Yossarian struggles to convince anyone of his insanity, clearly the entire military world around him is bonkers (oh yes, and corrupt).

Jon Bausor’s bold set is a B52 bomber with one side cut away. At first glance, its tilted angle suggests a crash, but a closer look reveals the plane’s located inside a large aircraft hangar.

The action takes place in and around this aircraft, with many scenes performed on the sloping wing. To get somewhere near an idea of the play’s style and script, think of an amalgamation of Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, MASH and Sergeant Bilko.

In some ways, this première UK stage production is like being reunited with old friends from long past. As well as Yossarian, we have Major Major (David Weber), Milo Minderbinder (Christopher Price) Colonel Cathcart (Michael Hodgson) et al, all in their different ways completely barking.

Thus the play includes a detailed analyis of the theft of a single plum tomato, the excited announcement of a new foodstuff, chocolate-covered cotton and an economic explanation of how eggs can be bought for sevent cents and sold for five cents at a profit.

One of the rare female characters (played by Victoria Bewick) states, "The god I don’t believe in is a just God".

Chavkin’s imaginative production imbues the action with a huge energy, a cartoonish style and exaggerated mannerisms which add to the sense of the absurd. Yet, because the book was based on Heller’s own experience (he flew more than 60 bombing missions himself), the crazier this world appears, the greater the sense of how serious his intent. These people, after all, are supposed to be safeguarding our way of life.

This is a brave, highly-imaginative crack at Heller’s text and Chavkin is well served by a cast of nine who are often painfully funny. At the centre is Phillip Arditti’s Yossarian whose need for restraint makes the performance all the more effective.

Rashdash’s additional jitterbugging choreography adds to the oddity. There is no way you would call this a musical. At times Chavkin attempts too much by making the stage overbusy and it’s not her fault the play, at three and a quarter hours, is 20 minutes too long (almost all plays of that length are too long).

But it’s an almost impossible non-linear, fragmentary, wild book to adapt. Best done by someone other than the original novelist, a new non-possessive writer who may wisely, for the purposes of theatre have cut some minor characters

Here,everyone, Arditti apart, is required to tackle several roles, often with little visual difference.

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer