Originally appeared on ACE Liverpool, 29.05.2014
Directed by Rachel Chavkin, Joseph Heller’s adaption of his own 1961 novel resurfaces upon the Playhouse stage, where the infamous paradox of Catch-22 dictates with warped validation.
In this American air force squadron, “crazy” is thrown around by everyone and at anybody, yet none of the soldiers seem really to understand the meaning of its callous affront.
To one young officer, Yossarian, an afflicted mental state promises escape from the war, and he attempts to feign insanity to get out of combat duty. It is only in this futile effort that he encounters Catch-22, the bureaucratic trap that upholds a system that practices self-sacrificing patriotism over the individual right to life. It is only then that Yossarian begins to comprehend the real meaning of insanity.
The fear of death is a rational response to war, meaning that anyone who asks to be grounded can’t possibly be crazy. Yet those who really are insane would never be aware of the looming death threat and so anybody who wants to get out of combat duty can’t possibly be crazy. If the perpetual ricocheting back and forth causes your brain to buzz, you should try contemplating it whilst in the throws of the Northern Stage performance.
Jon Bausor’s set embodies its absurdity; the stage boxed tightly inside the iron walls of an aircraft hangar – the audience detained along with it. It’s filled almost entirely with a sliced-through bomber fuselage, rearing up through the air as though in crash landing. Heller’s drama must unfold along its diagonal landscape, and its characters exit to the right only to reappear again through another door to the left.
The plot surges in waves of intensity, its peaks and lulls crafting a turbulent ride for the audience. Its climactic moments are hilariously frantic, as generals jabber faster and faster, erratic dances break out from nowhere atop the plane wing. But the reeling audience is offered some respite, as the feverish rush is interrupted with quieter moments of cold, clammy reality.
It’s here, once the peals of laughter have died down, we realise that the integral corruption of the system itself is the true “crazy” of Heller’s world; not the exaggerated, whimsical frippery that passes across the stage’s surface like a mild common cold. Individuality is thwarted as soldiers become mere resources in completing mission targets and helping senior officers gain promotions. Everybody is craftily profiting off the backs of others; from the convoluted strategising of the mess officer to the newly widowed wife whose grief is quickly forgotten with the arrival of generous compensation.
After three hours of performance, the audience is as exhausted as the actors. The lights fall in a final moment of lulling energy, leaving us to exit with the weight of absurdity that lingered beneath the jiving, love-making and comradely banter.