Whether you’ve read the book or not, everyone knows the concept. You’ve got a problem, but you can’t solve it because the solution is the problem: that’s Catch-22. In Joseph Heller’s fantastic book, set during the Second World War, you can be discharged from the armed forces if you’re crazy. The trouble is, you have to apply for the discharge, which in itself proves you’re not crazy. Therefore you won’t get discharged. Simples.
Yossarian is the Everyman figure coming to terms with life as a Bombardier in the American forces, desperate to be sent home because of his paranoia about everyone and everything wanting to kill him. Weaving in and out of his life are his military comrades and superiors, and it’s his relationships with these people and his confrontations with authority that provide the main narrative of the book. A lot of it is surreal and ludicrous, and a lot of it is rather repetitive, which gives the novel a great sense of irony, but sadly these aspects don’t transfer that well to the stage.
Despite the fact this is Catch-22 (the play)’s first ever UK tour, produced by Northern Stage, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen it. Heller adapted it himself in 1971 but it never had a proper commercial release. However, some time around 1980, it was performed by students from Brasenose College Oxford, and I went to see it, because my friend Andy was playing Major Major. Very funny he was too, jumping in and out of windows in his constant quest to avoid responsibility. Alas, I don’t have any other memories of it, but I remember quite enjoying it, although it was way too long.
Back to 2014. Entering the Oxford Playhouse, on first glance it’s a very impressive set, largely featuring the shell of a bomber aircraft which they act in and around. However, the aircraft takes up so much space that it limits the opportunities for the cast to move around the stage freely, and where they do use parts of the aircraft as the scenery, although it’s rather clever, it doesn’t seem very natural to me. There’s a central acting space – the internal floor of the aircraft – that is on an adverse camber, and not particularly useful either in dimensions or in its angle. I think they’ve fitted the action to go with the set rather than design a set that suits the action – a “tail wagging the dog” scenario. It also means that there’s quite a lot of action that takes place at the extreme edges of the stage, which unless you’re seated centrally in the audience, you might not get to see.
You really can’t escape the length of the show. Three and a quarter hours. On a warm Spring night in the Oxford Playhouse with the air-con only working intermittently, that’s a form of torture. You can just about get away with three hours if it’s a musical, when you’ve got the variation of content and a sense of stop-start with each song that allows you to break away from your concentration every so often. But with a play? No. Not unless you’re making a deliberate point, like the National Theatre’s uncut Hamlet in 1976 with Albert Finney. No one ever does Shakespeare nowadays without a little shaving off the edges – it’s just too long otherwise. I went to see that Hamlet as part of a school party – it started at 7pm and finished at 11. At the time it was the “show to see” for the very reason that there were no cuts; its glory was in its completeness. But with Catch-22, I guess Heller just loved his book too much to abridge it further. Like a lovely rose, it needs a damn good pruning. Whilst the repetition in the speeches and plot may well accurately reflect the repetition in the book, I found the constant circular conversations, where characters repeat back the words they hear to the person who said them, frankly boring on stage.
Many of the scenes are quite short and fast, presumably because there’s a lot of book to get through, which I also felt made it feel a bit rushed, and lacking in depth. Apart from Philip Arditti’s Yossarian, who is an almost constant presence on the stage, I didn’t really engage emotionally with many of the characters. That’s not to say you don’t get to know them – you do. Colonel Cathcart’s belligerence and double standards are very nicely portrayed by Michael Hodgson, Geoff Arnold captures the gentle Chaplain’s insecurities extremely well, and Daniel Ainsworth makes Nately’s idealism and decency very clear and strangely moving. But the whole show does suffer from the fact that there are so many characters portrayed by a handful of actors that inevitably a lot of it becomes a blur.
A few scenes really stood out for their dramatic or comic impact – I loved the scene where Yossarian was interviewed by the psychiatrist (Michael Hodgson again on cracking form) who clearly has more mental issues than his patient; and was amused (as I always am) by Major Major’s insistence on having no one enter his office whilst he’s at work, a nice mixture of the sane and insane subtly conveyed by David Webber’s thoughtfully understated performance. But there were other times where I felt the necessary impact was lacking – the constant knife attacks on Yossarian by Nately’s Whore, for example, seemed unthreatening, and, in the final scene, extremely underwhelming. There’s also a scene where Yossarian, just in his boxers, is sitting on top of the plane with Milo, discussing the potential market for chocolate covered cotton as a snack. Whilst some members of the audience were howling with laughter at this, I’m afraid it completely passed me by. Anyway, I have further suspicions about this scene, see ahead for details.
My overall reaction to the production is that Catch-22 is probably best left as a novel. It’s a very worthy project and a lot of effort has clearly gone into recreating the spirit of the original on stage, but I’m not sure it’s really worth it. Probably Joseph Heller is the chief problem here – the play is just too long, and the book has too many minor characters that appear in the stage adaptation resulting in a feeling more of confusion than elucidation. I’m afraid a few people sat near me didn’t return after the interval and one lady actually left halfway through the second act, which is a slightly odd time to walk out, although I can imagine a number of reasons why she might have done so. After it finishes its run at Oxford, it still has Derby and Richmond to visit. If you’re going, I hope you enjoy it and I wish you luck.
P. S. I’m going to put two and two (plus another two) together, and may or may not come up with six or something completely different; let’s see how it adds up. The first “two”: I was really surprised to find such a large number of schoolchildren in the audience. It looked as though several classes had come together for an evening at the theatre. Maybe it’s a set text and therefore will attract school trips. They were reasonably well behaved, so that wasn’t an issue. But they formed a significant percentage of the audience, and many of them looked pretty young to me. The second “two”: there’s an information note on the Oxford Playhouse website regarding this production that simply reads: “Age guidance 14+ contains some nudity” – well, there was no nudity in the performance I saw. And the third “two”? That scene on top of the plane that I felt lacked an impact. It started off with Yossarian at the edge of the stage, visibly getting an idea in his head, and then determinedly and purposefully undressing, chucking his clothes on the floor in a rampage – but then he went no further than his boxers, and climbed up on top of the plane; I believe, in the book, he sits naked in a tree. He had his conversation with Milo about chocolate cotton, and then that scene merged into the next one, with Doc Daneeka and his staff, where Yossarian donned a hospital gown over his boxers; and then that scene merged into yet another, now without the gown again, where he’s conversing with his girlfriend whilst she intimately caresses his upper torso. If my memory serves me right, then we snapped into the interval.
My suspicion is that this performance was effectively censored, possibly because of the large number of under 14s in the audience, and that this was the “nudity” scene. Now, I’m not overly worried about not getting to see Mr Arditti in the buff, but what I am worried about is that this becomes a bowdlerized version of the artistic vision of the production, and if so it totally compromises the integrity of the entire production in my eyes. If they can do that, who knows to what length they will sacrifice their vision to attract the ticket costs of a younger audience. For one thing, at what point would he normally have put clothes on again? For the hospital scene? For the girlfriend scene? If that girlfriend scene normally takes place with his wearing nothing it puts a very different complexion on the audience’s perception of their relationship. And if the nudity was censored, was anything else? Did they remove swear words for example? Were any gestures changed? It’s like going back to the days of the Lord Chamberlain except that it’s the production company wielding the red pen. Once you start playing with a show to adapt it for different audiences, and not being open and honest about it, then you’re sinking in very muddy waters. As you can guess, censorship is one of my pet hates – in fact stage censorship was the subject of my postgrad research. I tweeted Northern Stage to ask these questions, but sadly haven’t had a reply. If two and two and two make six, I am left to conclude that there was something definitely afoot with Tuesday night’s show. However, if two and two and two make five, maybe the creative team have changed it permanently, deciding it works better this way. If you know, please tell me!