Catch 22 preview: From page to stage

Kevin Bourke

Joseph Heller’s classic novel Catch-22 comes to Newcastle’s Northern Stage theatre.

Rarely has a book written in the last hundred years penetrated public consciousness quite so comprehensively as Joseph Heller’s 1961 satirical, anti-war novel, Catch-22. Even those who don’t read books much are usually aware of the pretzel logic of its premise; the title-phrase itself has long-since entered popular parlance, signifying an insoluble, inescapable paradox. More specifically, one inflicted by a crazy bureaucracy on hapless humans.

But Catch-22’s blend of absurd humour, surreal horror and nonlinear storytelling has never transferred successfully beyond the printed page. A 1970 film by Mike Nichols was widely regarded as disappointing. Heller’s own 1971 script was never performed on Broadway, as originally intended. However, New York-based Aquila Theatre did produce a USA touring stage adaptation in 2007-2008. Now, Newcastle-based theatre Northern Stage have produced the first UK touring production of Heller’s dramatisation, which premieres in Newcastle on 19 April before appearing in Birmingham, Liverpool and Derby.

“What does a sane man do in an insane society?”

Catch-22, says Northern Stage Artistic Director Lorne Campbell, is “one of those rare pieces of great art that manages to be complex and simple at the same time. We expect this to be a landmark production of Heller’s classic text.” Directing is New York director Rachel Chavkin, with Philip Arditti as Yossarian in the lead role. “There’s a reason the book is always in the ‘100 Best Books Ever’ lists,” he enthuses. “It’s because of the quality of the idea, of people being caught in Catch-22 – whether by their environment or within themselves. That idea resonates in people’s imagination.”

For Heller, who wrote the novel after serving in the Second World War, the book posed the question: “what does a sane man do in an insane society?” His hapless hero Yossarian is desperate not to have to fly in obviously suicidal bombing missions. But the only way to escape this fate is to convince the manipulative and mendacious authorities that he’s crazy. Yet to want to escape flying the deadly missions is – obviously – sane. Thus, trying to get out of them proves your sanity and seals your fate. “That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” observes Yossarian; Heller’s character who became a symbolic hero of the Sixties anti-war counterculture.

Geneva-born actor Arditti points out how relevant Yossarian continues to be: “I’m playing a young man trying to make his way within a difficult system. It happens to be a war but his situation really can be the case for many people in England,” he muses. Few people haven’t been faced with a catch-22 at some point in their life – now you have the chance to watch the original dilemma play out.

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Gwendoline Riley. Photo by Adrian Lourie

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