The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 20th May, 2014
Joseph Heller’s story has appeared as a novel and as a film. This stage adaptation encapsulates the feel of both of those while at the same time being an effective piece of theatre in its own right. We follow the experiences of Yossarian, an everyman caught up both in a war and the bonkers bureaucracy of the men in charge. Philip Arditti plays it sardonically for the most part, until the absurdity of the situation pushes Yossarian to the limit. Arditti is the lone sane voice in this mad world and when he tries, literally, to divest himself of the craziness around him, as a human being laid bare, the rules and regulations of this crazy society won’t let him be.
Jon Bausor’s corrugated iron set is dominated by a bisected aeroplane in and around which the action takes place. Scott Twynholm’s sound design helps to keep us on edge. We flit from office to brothel to war zone and the actors elide from character to character by swapping hats or spectacles. The transitions are slick; scenes blend and jar, as though we are in Yossarian’s consciousness. Director Rachel Chavkin lays the craziness bare, keeping the action focussed and not overburdened with gimmicks and ‘cleverness’. An example of what works really well is when soldiers start dancing in place, symbolising their adherence to rules of behaviour, their subjugation to someone else’s tune.
Supporting the excellent Arditti is a strong ensemble, each member of which doubles up on roles. Very funny is David Webber’s Major Major who would rather defenestrate himself than receive visitors in his office; Michael Hodgson’s Colonel Cathcart is a jobsworth on a monstrous scale; Christopher Price’s Milo Minderbinder is the capitalist on the make, exploiting the war for personal profit. Heller’s work is remarkably relevant outside of the context of war!
The absurdity of bureaucracy and the horrors of war intermingle to create a very funny, sometimes shocking, always engaging night at the theatre. It perhaps makes all its points well before the running time elapses but you don’t really mind numbness in the bum when your mind is both tickled and dismayed by Northern Stage’s high quality production.