When asked later in life by an interviewer why he had never written a book quite as good as Catch-22, Joseph Heller hit back acidly. “Who has?” he replied.
It is a feeling shared by lovers of this sprawling, angry cri de coeur which routinely tops the charts of favourite reads – particularly among men who devoured it in their pimply teenage years.
The book resonates with the bewilderment of youth railing against the absurdities of the adult world with its ridiculous rules, contradictions and injustices.
Heller was barely in his 20s when he was flying combat missions with the 12th US Airforce in the Mediterranean as the Allies threw hundreds of thousands of young men into the furnace in their quest to retake Europe from the Nazis. The world must have seemed spectacularly mad to him.
The writer managed to get through 37 missions without fear. After his plane was hit by flak the remaining 23 were experiences beyond terror.
Catch-22 (nearly named Catch-18 but deemed too similar to a title by Leon Uris) didn’t appear until 1961. The “serious” critics did not love it, complaining that the passion ran ahead of the craft.
College kids meanwhile passed the book amongst themselves and it became a hit. To them, the Greatest Generation were not Hollywood’s chisel-chinned heroes but real, frightened, angry, desperate-to-live young men just like them.
For a nation spiralling towards the tragedy of Vietnam it was bleak and prophetic as well as uproariously funny.
Those early 60s critics might have similar feelings about Rachel Chavkin’s epic realisation of Heller’s cult classic although again they might be contradicted. The director is brilliantly alive to her fellow Brooklynite’s excoriating dialogue and mines the text for every nugget of tragi-comic gold.
But at more than three and a quarter hours it is rather long and occasionally drifts before clicking back into focus. When Heller produced a theatrical version of the book in 1971 it was a one act play. A few years later he created Clevinger’s Trial, which was performed in London and based on a single chapter of the novel.
Perhaps, during the coming weeks of a national tour it may be honed a little although slickness should hopefully never be a defining characteristic of any interpretation.
Philip Arditti is extraordinarily good as Yossarian. His is a near note-perfect realisation of the bombed-out bombardier whose death-defying mission to stay alive brings him up against the brutal and unyielding logic of the military machine.
It is a massive role which he brings off with apparently ridiculous ease. Also outstanding is Michael Hodgson as the demented Colonel Cathcart and other roles whilst David Webber makes a sturdy Colonel Korn and entertainingly flaky Major Major.
This was a man’s world and the women are little more than ornament or victim. Attitudes of the day have not been too retro-polished either so that along with the glorious music, clothes and a superb set, the extraordinary romance of the era comes heartbreakingly to life.
Northern Stage to 10 May then touring to 28 June.