This review was originally written for The Public Reviews
On the initial publication of Joseph Heller’s satirical masterpiece in 1961, the New York Herald Tribune hailed Catch-22 as ‘a wild, moving, shocking, hilarious, raging, exhilarating, giant roller-coaster of a book’. Much of the same could be said of Heller’s own stage adaptation, currently on tour with Northern Stage at the Oxford Playhouse. Commendable for its aesthetic quality and exquisite performances, director Rachel Chavkin’s interpretation of this sprawling landmark of post-war American literature suffers only from the material’s inherent lack of structure.
Set largely on the Mediterranean island of Pianosa during World War II, Catch-22 follows Captain John Yossarian (Philip Arditti), an American bombardier with the fictional 256th Squadron, and his increasing mental anxiety over the war. As Yossarian hurtles back and forth between the air base and hospital, occasionally enjoying excursions to his favourite brothel in Rome, he grows ever more frustrated with a variety of eccentric, frequently incompetent and fantastically satirical characters, and ever more certain of his wish to return home.
Just like Yossarian, Heller himself served as a B-25 bombardier, flying 60 missions over Italy between 1944 and 1945 and the play, like the novel, commendably reflects the real trauma of his experiences. Philip Arditti is exceptional in capturing Yossarian’s growing despair and, when coupled with the hysterically ridiculous supporting roles, this leaves the audience with a tangible and extremely powerful sense of the sheer absurdity of war.
Aside from Arditti as Heller’s famous anti-hero, the cast play numerous roles and in truth, the ensemble is without a weak link. Geoff Arnold plays both the squadron’s timid chaplain and its resident buffoon Aarfy, displaying laudable variety throughout; David Webber is entertaining as the jovial Doc Daneeka and more so as the exasperated Major Major, who attempts to climb out of the window whenever anyone comes to see him; and Michael Hodgson displays enjoyable bluster as the preposterous Colonel Cathcart. Simon Darwen deserves mention for his versatility, particularly when he changes role twice in the space of 20 seconds and manages to maintain each character’s individuality.
The set is particularly striking: an enormous aircraft hangar, walled with corrugated metal and occupied by the cross-section of a large plane, the wing of which extends out towards the audience. Pleasingly, the action takes place on multiple levels, shifting from the roof of the plane, to the surface of its wing, to its slanted interior, to the floor in front of it. As a visual spectacle, Catch-22 is worthy of high praise.
Yet for all its aesthetic quality and quality acting, Catch-22 does not captivate the audience, simply because of the nature of its source material. Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel achieved cult popularity and lasting fame due in part to the scattered focus of its storyline and tendency to jump back and forth through time. In adapting it for the stage, Heller attempted to involve more of a narrative thread but was evidently intent on maintaining his novel’s distinguishing sprawl. The result is a play with a meandering plot substantially devoid of drive and similarly lacking in centrality, which accordingly fails to immerse the viewer.
At nearly three hours long, Catch-22 is a decidedly heavy piece of theatre. Its frequent quasi-philosophical discourses can tend towards frustrating repetitiveness but impressive performances from the entire cast prevent the play from ever slipping into monotony. The audience would undoubtedly be more engaged were a tangible plotline existent, but (with delicious irony) installing this would inevitably compromise the characteristic scatter of Heller’s novel. I suppose that’s Catch-22.