Written by Joseph Heller
Directed by Hannah Bradley
Insidiously paradoxical, Captain Yossarian (Yo-Yo) finds himself confined by the titular catch of the airforce: those who are compos mentis enough to recognise the dangers of flying are sane enough to pass the medical. Which unfortunately means playing insane isn’t an option, as only the loons would put themselves forward to fly. Joseph Heller’s satirical war-drama Catch-22 surrounds itself in miscommunications and the improbable, so who better to tackle this than Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group?
Notoriously difficult, Heller’s Catch-22 claims the dignity of various adaptations which fail to grasp the nuances of balancing pathos which lacerating satire. A starkly timeless narrative, with nightmarish complexities surrounding bureaucracy, it primarily lampoons military narcissism and economics. In truth, it’s a text which reads far more impressively than it is often performed, then again, have EGTG ever been ones to shy from a challenge?
Evidently, director Hannah Bradley, along with Assistant director Hannah Fitzpatrick, has a firm grip on the structure of the production, and a deep care for the original novel. Honing in on the ironic elements, knowing this can instil a wider range of investment within a limited timescale, Bradley encourages performers to capitalise on people remembering humorous or big characters clearer than subtle performances.
And what a plethora to remember, without neglecting others, huge praise needs to be spoken for Gordon Houston, Richard Godden and Joshua McDiarmid’s performances, with extra kudos on offer to Bethany Cunningham who takes the smaller nursing role and makes it entirely her own. Bradley’s decision to have a larger representative production works beyond mere diversity, the chorus of female performers add to the flavour of scenes, Erini Stamkou pushing the psychotic extremes of American G.I’s fears over ‘others’ to the extreme.
Carrying a lengthy production, Houston achieves a precise level of defiance against the system, yet is also broken by its repetitious assaults to his body, psyche and spirit. He has a balance of over-zealous exasperation, channelling sensationally British comedy stars. He’s enthralling, drawing out the best of others, and matching wits with the more experienced performers of EGTG. The inevitability of death, a fascination of Heller’s, Yossarian is cast in a shadow of his follower, regardless of where he may venture.
One such wit, that of Godden, whose multiple performances build to a side-splitting rendition of a physiatrist in need of examination is a short, but paramount scene to the success of the production. Not all about the gallows humour, Cunningham and Dimitri Woods’ Chaplain crash the violent realities of war onto the stage. Woods’ performance grows in time, at first, it seems delicate, but an iron core is drawn out, with some soft-hearted humour cladding the character and representing the text’s loss of religious faith rather beautifully. Bolstering his part by the fact his primary role, like Houston, is one which never alters into secondary or tertiary parts, which is sadly where some performances flounce.
This becomes particularly evident with time shifts, especially when performers take on two-separate roles within minutes of each other. There needs to be a distinctly apparent change, which needs to stretch beyond a physical switch for some performers. This can be seen with the epitome of capitalist thrift, Milo Minderbinder. A fascinating character, but Siebken’s other, much smaller parts, can’t measure to the same quality. Free to exaggerate characters, the cast can become too large, too reliant on simple physical characteristics, losing an intimacy or recognition with the audience.
It’s an intrinsic issue with the text, valiant as their attempt is, a cast of fourteen, regardless of talent, will find a struggle in representing such a high volume of characters. It makes for messy moments, which tangle themselves up in what has been a wonderfully weaved web of understanding. Untangling one issue, that of how to stage a piece like this has been methodically thought through.
The Biscuit Factory, a sensational venue which deserves greater recognition, is the prime setting for Bradley’s decision to assail us into the action. Thrust staging creates awkward situations, but a testament to the thought process behind Catch-22, there is little question that a seat anywhere would offer a clear viewing. What’s more, going beyond simple seating, Bradley’s concept of placing us within the confines of the famous B-25windows captures ensnaring claustrophobia, brilliantly designed by Chris Allan and Michael Mulligan.
Aiding immensely in this transition, particularly to separate scenes, or the passing of time is Gordon Hughe’s seamless lighting design. Few of the transitions are pronounced, rather they reinforce the emotion of a scene without detracting from performers, complimentary in execution. Whether this is bathing the cold, unfeeling concrete of The Biscuit Factory in the lurid verdure of madness, or a stark rose of passion, it’s impressive world-building.
The impotence of language laces through the production, from the obvious censorships of Washington Irving to how language can circumvent logic, it’s clear how much of a grasp on Catch 22 Bradley and EGTG have. This alone is a testament to the theatre companies ability with fathomable shows, which they stage in ways others would turn from, in venues many wouldn’t consider. Catch-22 is by no means an easy watch, though, by no fault of the team, its errors lie within Heller’s engorgement of the character roster and his overlapping motifs and words. What Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group are performing at this moment is one of the closest adaptations, while being so inherently different, that there is no doubt Heller would be proud of its creative impossibility and is an absolute must-watch.
Catch – 22 runs at The Biscuit Factory until Saturday November 16th. Tickets are available from: https://theegtg.com/2019/08/30/catch-22/