Somewhere there's always a catch

Philip Arditti as Yossarian

Looking for the catch: Philip Arditti as Yossarian  Pictures: Topher McGrillis

Catch 22

Birmingham Rep

****

THE Americans only entered the Second World War at the end of 1941, which is just as well; had they been there from the start then Catch 22 would have been even longer!

At three hours ten minutes it is a theatrical marathon of Hamlet proportions and is a glorious attempt to bring Joseph Heller’s wicked satire of war and the military to the stage.

The novel was published in 1961, which is about when I first read it. It became a sort of literary right of passage along with Catcher in the Rye, and for the more adventurous, Herman Wouk’s The City Boy.

Then of course there was that other essential for boys coming of age in the 60s, Lady Chatterly’s Lover (that 1960 Penguin pornography trial was the best marketing any book ever had).

The Second World War was still being lived then with fathers, uncles, neighbours all with tales to tell and war films a steady diet on at the cinema or on our two and soon to be three TV channels.

Catch 22 was different, this wasn’t Biggles or Matt Braddock VC and bar, in his Lancaster in the Victor, it wasn’t even stiff upper lip, it was irreverent, poking fun at the military and illustrating the futility of war.

Its hero, as such, was Captain John Yossarian, aGeoff Arnold and Christopher Price in two of their myriad of roles bombardier promoted and decorated because it was easier than disciplining him, who meanders though the novel surrounded by a motley collection of airmen who are trying to keep their sanity, or insanity, long enough to complete their quota of bombing missions so they can go home.

Except as the crews get close Colonel Cathcart ups the quota so no one can ever actually reach it.

Geoff Arnold and Christopher Price in two of their myriad of roles

Philip Arditti is a wonderful Yossarian - a difficult part as he is on stage almost the whole time – like Heller, a bombardier based on an island off the coast of Italy.

Yossarian has had enough and wants to go home but if he complains that if he flies more mission he could get killed then obviously he is sane so can’t be sent home.

Whereas if he flies the extra missions without complaining he is probably mad and should be sent home but that can’t happen as he has not asked to leave. But if he does ask then he is obviously sane so has to stay and so on . . . Catch 22.

Arditti gives Yassarian a hunted and a haunted look as an airman at the end of his tether battling a system that defies logic, he even ends up stark naked sitting up a tree – which probably had him down the gym and shedding a few pounds when he saw the script -  while Michael Hodgson gives us a Cathcart whose hold on reality went many moons ago.

His Cathcart is mad as hatter, swayed by any argument, however illogical, unlikely or plain loopy, and determined to make general. He volunteers his airmen to fly more and more dangerous missions, increasing the quotas along the way, in his quest for promotion.

Lt Colonel Korn, played  by David Webber, is at his side, steering him away from the most controversial line to the . . . least insane decisions but ha his own agenda - a campaign to be a full colonel but he does show he is human, or at least close to it, at the end.

Webber, like everyone but Yossarian, takes on extra roles such as the wonderful Major Major Major – Major Major for short – who will only see people when he is out – and Doc Daneeka, who is permanently cold and has the added problem of being declared dead when he patently isn’t. Still on a medical theme Hodgson gives is an even loonier medic as the base psychiatrist charged with examining Yossarian and his fish dreams after he fondled nurse Duckett, played by Victoria Bewick.

Bewick in turn gives us the first sexy and then psychotic Luciana who is Natley’s whore, a combination of book characters. When Nately dies in action she blames Yossarian and spends the rest of the play trying to kill him.

Christopher Price gives us a Milo Mindbender who has taken on the role of camp quartermaster and turned it into a multinational trading organization, so much so that he cannot be released for bombing duties. He is also Texan the military police undercover agent finding out who has been censoring mail as Irving Washington.

Likely suspect is the meek and mild chaplain, Geoff Arnold who is also Arfy who rapes and kills an innocent maid with the justification he never pays for it and she would only have said bad things about him had he not killed her.

It is one of the scenes which reminds you this is not a comedy, it a a biting satire, there is death, real death whether the innocent civilian victim of Arfy,  Nately or, the first casualty, Snowden, who preys on Yossarian’s mind for the entire play. It is about war and war is unpleasant, cruel and unfair. It is funny but not with jokes or one liners, this isn’t M.A.S.H on an airbase; it is funny because of the twisted logic, the surreal characters and events, rules coming first such as AWOL trumping rape and murder, and it shows the way anything can be turned to someone’s advantage, usually Cathcart’s in his pursuit of promotion.

Geoff Arnold, Daniel Ainsworth and Philip Arditti keeping the war effort moving

There is excellent support from Daniel Ainsworth as Natley and also, among others, the atheist Sgt Whitcomb aiming to get the Chaplain in trouble while Simon Darwen provides us with  Clevenger and the most powerful man on the base, Wintergreen who handles the mail and distributes orders and finally there is Liz Kettle who fills every other female part.

They change characters are breakneck pace, sometimes just by turning around but you never feel any more lost or confused than Heller intended.

John Bausor’s set is both dramatic and functional, an exposed USAF bomber with one wing parked in a corrugated iron hangar creating scenes in flight, in a Rome brothel, offices, hospital and even Yossarian’s tree all helped by Charles Balfour’s clever lighting design and some excellent sound – a tricky area at the Rep – from Scott Twynholm. Rachel Chavkin, the director, keeps things moving at a good pace – which is just as well – and manages to make the story as clear as it ever will be in a staging of Heller’s novel.

The missions with the sound of thundering engines flooding the auditorium bring a raw realism to the senses. It is a long way from the real fear of flying into enemy fire but is enough to make emotions uncomfortable.

To be honest I have my doubts that Catch 22 can ever be fully captured on stage or in the cinema, it is a big, sprawling novel, with not just a start middle and end but lots of them, and not necessarily that way round, with events taken out of chorological order. It takes the chaos and madness of war, the inflexibility of the military and bureaucracy and then mixes them up with a sundry collection the mad and sane and even the odd normal character and throws them  at the page.

This superb Northern Stage production comes close;  it might not win a cigar but is certainly worth a cheroot – and you don’t have to have read the book to follow what is going on. It stands on its own feet as a piece of entertaining, funny and thoughtful drama. To 24-05-14.

Roger Clarke

20-05-14

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