Northern Stage does Catch 22 as a farce-cum-thriller. Believe it not, it works.
When Northern Stage announced that their flagship show of the season, they made a big thing of the fact that the stage version of Catch 22, adapted by Joseph Heller himself, has rarely been performed. This might seem an exciting thing, but this fact actually needs to be treated with caution. When a play by a famous author is rarely produced, I know from bitter experience that it often turns there’s a good reason why that is so. And we also know that good novelists don’t always make good playwrights, even when adapting their own books. Nevertheless, Northern Stage have quite a good record of productions of famous stories, so that’s one reason to be optimistic.
Anyway, we all know the famous dilemma that the title refers to, so- … What do you mean “I don’t know Catch 22 refers to?” Honestly, some people … Right, the situation is that Captain Yossarin, an American bomber in the Italian campaign of 1944, wants to get out of flying more missions. He tries to get himself declared insane. But Catch 22 says that by trying to get yourself out of risking your life, that’s a rational response, so anyone who says they’re insane must be sane, okay? Now, you might be unsympathetic to Yossarin in this situation. Honestly, these wussy Americans didn’t join the war until the bit where the goodies start winning, and now this one’s already had enough! With less than a year to go too! But the problem is that there’s Colonel Cathcart and Lieutenant Colonel Korn who are corrupt, reckless, and apparently hell-bent on sending the squadrons into endless missions after suicidal missions. As Yosarrin puts it, for every ideal worth fighter for, there’s a Catchcart and Korn standing in the way.
But this stage adaptation has its own Catch-22 dilemma: put in every detail of this complex story, and the play will run for ten hours. Cut it, and you risk losing a major chunk of the story. It’s a problem for virtually any novel. But the solution Heller chose is one I would never have guessed: make it into a farce. Just like Blackadder Goes Forth did for World War One, a lot of the elements of the story are farcical. The petty corruption throughout the base; the silly bureaucracy that allows corruption to run rife; the delusion of Lieutenant Nately who thinks his trysts with an Italian whore constitutes true love; the thinly disguised anti-semitism when referring to Jews as “enlisted officers” (“I’ve nothing against enlisted officers, but you wouldn’t want you sister to marry one?”); the pathetic lengths that promotion-chasing Catchcart goes to curry favour with generals. Most farcical of all, the poor sod reported dead to his wife and mother-in-law despite his protestations that he’s still alive. I wasn’t expecting this is be a comedy, but it predominantly was, and did so to good effect.
And yet Catch-22 does not lose sight of its roots as a thriller. In Blackadder Goes Forth, the one bits of drama is a three-minute over-the-top scene bolted on to six episodes of sitcom. Not so here. Catchcart and Korn could have been made into caricatures like Melchett and Darling, but instead they are made into a pair of scarily believable corrupt officers happy to send their men to their deaths so that they can look good for volunteering for the most dangerous missions to Milan and Avignon. The horrors of the war and not buried behind the comedy, but remain at the forefront throughout the play. The whore that Nately called his girlfriend actually is in love with him – but we don’t find that you until Yoassarin tells her he was killed in action. Another of Yoassarian’s friends think it’s okay to rape and murder young ladies in Rome.
I do have a have a few reservation about the production. In spite of the efforts to condense a complicated novel into one play, it was difficult to follow the bit about the detectives grilling the chaplain over forged signatures. The first half dragged a little, because the endless attempts made by Yossarin to get out of service got repetitive in the end. And I did feel the nudity was unnecessarily gratuitous for the context. Nevertheless, this is a job well done. It seems the reason this script is rarely performed isn’t because there’s anything wrong with it, but because most theatres shy away from the idea of a play that makes light of such a dark subject. Much credit goes to Northern Stage and director Rachel Chavkin for believing in this and making it work.