Brighton Festival 2014
Set in the closing months of World War II, a bombardier named Yossarian is trapped in the absurd world of an inescapable war. Frantic and furious, as thousands of people he has never met try to kill him Yossarian is stalked and thwarted by the merciless Catch-22.
Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel coined the term ‘catch 22’, meaning a situation where fundamentally you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. This is the experience of Yossarian, a bombardier, desperate to fly his allocated number of missions so he can go home, yet thanks to his bonkers commander, this will never happen as the number of missions required for leave to be granted just keeps going up.
Caught in an insane spiral of absurd army rules, bureaucracy and the face-saving antics of the appalling Colonel Cathcart, he is unable to navigate the minefield and falls foul of the system most spectacularly. I was reminded on more than one occasion of the marvellous Blackadder episode where they pretend to go mad by putting pencils up their noses and underpants on their heads in the hope of being sent home. These elements of hilarity undercut with no small amount of pathos were very much echoed in Catch 22, which though depicting the conflict in World War Two, could just have easily been set in Vietnam or modern day Afghanistan.
Turning a novel into a successful stage play is always a challenge to do well, but Northern Stage were clearly more than up to the challenge. This excellent theatre in Newcastle have mounted a production that is as comedic, high in energy and as farcical as the novel demands, without losing the essence of the original text. That being said, companions of mine who were more familiar with the text did express some sadness that much of the beauty of the language and the careful crafting of important ‘moments’ found in the novel were lost amongst the somewhat busy staging, which diluted some of these elements in an unfortunate way.
The set was elaborate – a cut-away aircraft, half crashed and surrounded on all sides by corrugated iron, giving an excellent impression of an aircraft hangar. There were definitely enough opportunities for absurd and farcical entrances and exits as characters leapt in and out of windows and fell through doors, making it feel at times like a Joe Orton comedy. What the play highlighted was the perverse insanity of war, the cast of twisted characters, each dealing with this most unnatural of situations in their own way, be that profiteering from the most insane of black market pyramid schemes, or by using their power and influence to send men to their deaths on pointless missions, simply to be seen to be doing something.
That Heller was writing this book at the time that US involvement in Vietnam was intensifying comes across incredibly strongly in the text, and the events of the novel and the play could almost be seen as foreshadowing some of the appalling events in Vietnam which were yet to come. It is this cycle of absurdity that Northern Stage conveyed exceptionally well in this adaptation – presenting it very much as a period piece but with a sense of universality that came across strongly.