“Catch-22” by Joseph Heller

at Richmond Theatre, Tuesday 24th June 2014

*Originally written for Exeunt*

The last lines of Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22 form one of those famous closing passages: “Yossarian jumped.  Nately’s whore was hiding just outside the door.  The knife came down, missing him by inches and he took off.” It’s a beautifully ambiguous ending, with the phrase “took off” having a whole plethora of different meanings, and contains within it all the contradictions of the novel itself.

In this stage version of the novel, however – which Heller adapted himself – some of that ambiguity and contradiction of this classic World War II story is unfortunately lost in its transition to a different medium. The non-linear, fragmentary narrative following B-52 bombardier Yossarian and his struggles to get out of service turns into a series of consecutive sketches, and the bemused third-person narrator instead becomes us, with less knowledge and power than our literary equivalent. It’s undoubtedly a difficult novel to adapt, but you’d expect that its originator would recognise that it’s not as easy as simply transposing the scenes to the theatre.

Fortunately, director Rachel Chavkin grasps some of the beauty of the novel back by capturing its essence of absurdism, so that at times the production feels like a cross between Dad’s Army and Monty Python. Performed on Jon Bausor’s slightly shaky, almost knowingly-false B-52 design, contained within a corrugated iron hangar complete with wartime paraphernalia and music, the production embraces the sketchy nature of Heller’s adaptation, playing characters like caricatures and skipping from one skit to the next in a heartbeat. We get a sense of Yossarian’s perpetual bemusement, as we struggle to work out what’s going on in the same way as he does.

Philip Arditti plays the protagonist with wide-eyed confusion, in turns coming across as the most sane and least sane person in the room. He is the straight man to everyone else around him, with Geoff Arnold’s anxiety-ridden Chaplain and Simon Darwen’s sly Clevinger seeming to be the closest he gets to ‘real’ human beings. Indeed, with David Webber’s Major Major, Daniel Ainsworth’s smiley, Johnny-like Nately and Michael Hodgson’s stand-out performance as Colonel Cathcart – as if Captain Mainwaring mated with Doctor Alan Statham – it sometimes feels like a WWII version of Airplane! The humour is specific, sure, and won’t appeal to all tastes, but it’s beautifully observed.

Nothing is so sacred as to avoid satire in Heller’s world, as religion, psychiatry, commerce, war, bureaucracy and sex are all sent-up in swift succession, demonstrating through humour the intricate, dangerous ways in which these things link together and support one another. When it’s noted that fifty to sixty countries are involved in the war, each with thousands of patriots willing to risk their lives, it’s noted that “Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for”. In this absurd world, simple statements suddenly become profound.

But though there’s some stinging analysis, it never quite feels like an entirely successful adaptation; while Headlong found a way of embodying the very idea of doublethink in their production of 1984, Heller fails to uncover a similar theatrical metaphor for the notion of a ‘catch-22’, meaning the loops and paradoxes of the novel struggle to materialise. Indeed, it almost feels too faithful to the original, and though Chavkin’s production makes some bold leaps, unlike Yossarian it’s a show which never quite takes off.

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