Writer: Joseph Heller
Director: Rachel Chavkin
This should have been so good. An iconic novel brought to the UK stage for the first time, with an adaptation by the author and a production by one of the most creative and talented companies in the country. So why, in spite of all the promise, does it only merit three stars? Because it’s just far too long.
Running at over three hours, it’s as if Joseph Heller was unable or unwilling to exercise editorial control with his adaptation. Yes, there are things he left out, and yes, he did play around with the structure to create a logic and order that works for the stage, but overall it’s as if he felt far too much loyalty and fidelity to the book to make the sort of substantial cuts that would have turned this into a classic standalone play.
That’s not to say there aren’t some great moments, Major Major delivering instructions to prevent anyone from seeing him, the request for Yossarian to pretend to be an almost dead officer to fool an actual dead officer’s parents, and a living man being told he is dead, are among the highlights dotted throughout the play. At its best, the script has wit, anger, tragedy and pathos, often all at the same time, but the problem is that scenes are allowed to run on for far too long, destroying the joke, over egging the absurdity, and ramming home a point that was already well understood. The scene with the dead officer’s parents is at least twice as long as it needs to be, and is by no means the worst example of a scene stretched beyond the point of necessity.
The surreal and the absurd at times combine to great effect, capturing the madness and insanity at the heart of the novel, but again, elsewhere, it tries too hard with scenes and characters played out as grotesque parodies. Colonel Cathcart is practically unwatchable in the second act as his exaggerated words and actions get in the way of one of the best moments when Yossarian is offered a way out of the combat missions he has been seeking to avoid from the start.
Jon Bausor’s set is fantastic, a mixture of a plane wreck and a military office that also acts as a backdrop to other scenes. The cast switch effortlessly between a variety of rôles sometimes within the space of a line, and the talent within the company is clear to see. David Webber is a particular highlight, bringing out all the humour and contradictions within his characters and the war itself. Philip Arditti, as Yossarian, admirably manages the difficult task of holding the disparate strands of the script together, switching between settings and emotions while always retaining his core aim of returning home without flying on any more missions.
But the play needs to be edited. Some scenes need to be taken out, and others dramatically shortened to get a script that delivers a real punch overall. Both acts have natural ending points around the one hour mark, but carry on for another twenty minutes, and several more possible endings, before reaching unsatisfactory conclusions that just make you wonder why Heller didn’t end them sooner.
Written in the early 70s, the play never made its original intended destination of a Broadway run. If it was written now it would probably go through rigorous edits and re-writes to make sure it did. The potential for brilliance is there, but it’s hiding in something that is too bloated and unfocused to deliver on the promise.
Photo: Topher McGrillis | Runs until 28 June