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American directs American classic Catch-22 in Newcastle

New York theatre director Rachel Chavkin has been preparing an American classic for North East eyes

Director Rachel Chavkin with the cast of Catch-22 in rehearsals
Director Rachel Chavkin with the cast of Catch-22 in rehearsals

Catch-22. It is one of the great works of American literature – so great, in fact, that many people might not even know it’s a book.

When he coined the title for his satirical novel, Joseph Heller can have had little idea that he was inventing a phrase that would enter the language, neatly describing the no-win situation or, as Rachel Chavkin neatly puts it: “You’re screwed if you do and you’re screwed if you don’t.”

And if you haven’t found yourself, at some point in your life, in that familiar situation, then I reckon you have led a particularly charmed existence or are not quite human.

Evidently the no-win sensation was rife in the US Army Air Corps for whom a young Joseph Heller flew 60 combat missions during the Second World War – and with whom his fictional protagonist, Capt John Yossarian, would also serve.

The spirit of the novel is captured in the famous opening line: “He was going to live forever, or die in the attempt.”

Apparently Heller, who died in 1999, originally called his story Catch-18 but was talked out of it by his agent who anticipated confusion with another recently published war novel called Milla 18. Catch-11, Catch-14 and Catch-17 were also considered and rejected, apparently.

We know now how wrong these alternatives would have been. In Catch-22 we have a title, a phrase, a neat summation of the human predicament that clearly existed all along and was just waiting to be retrieved or discovered. Catch-22 was and is so right. The book just had to be a classic.

And who, frankly, has the innate confidence to mess in any way with a classic?

Rachel Chavkin is grabbing a sandwich in a rehearsal break at the Durant Hall which is attached to the Unitarian Church in Ellison Place, Newcastle.

The cast have briefly made themselves scarce, but there’s a lingering buzz about the place. You can sense the energy that has been sparking here and that bodes well.

But how come a New Yorker, albeit an award-winning one, is directing a theatre adaptation of a game-changing American novel for a Newcastle theatre company, Northern Stage?

“Lorne Campbell (Northern Stage artistic director) is an old friend of mine,” says Rachel candidly.

“In 2005 my theatre company, The Team, was doing two shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and Lorne was working at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh.

“We were making our debut and my first professional meeting was with Lorne. I was just 25 at the time and he was asking if we were planning to come back to the Fringe next year. It was a really good meeting from my point of view and helped the company to carry on.”

The Team, set up in New York in 2004 by Rachel and fellow university graduates, has been a regular visitor to the Edinburgh Fringe, earning the Scotsman newspaper’s coveted Fringe First Award in 2005, 2006, 2008 and again in 2011.

Rachel describes her company as “a collaborative writing ensemble based in Brooklyn (where, incidentally, Joseph Heller was born in 1923).

“The mission is to make new work about the American experience – and what it is like to live in America – in a way that includes elements of physical theatre,” she says.

“It is very, very sweaty.

“One of the things we do is take elements of American history and anthology and work it into new stuff for a modern audience.”

The Team’s most recent work, RoosevElvis, is bound for London next year. A plot summary from the website explains: “On a hallucinatory road trip from the Badlands to Graceland, the spirits of Elvis Presley and Theodore Roosevelt battle over the soul of Ann, a painfully shy meat-processing plant worker...”

Mmm!

But that is The Team and this is Northern Stage and Rachel takes up the tale once again...

“Lorne has probably seen as much of my work as anyone and we’ve stayed very much in touch over the years,” she says.

“When he was appointed artistic director here he mentioned that Catch-22 was a text he was thinking about because it had never had a major UK tour or even life.

“I kind of threw myself at the project and said you should have me to adapt it.

“We didn’t know Joseph Heller had done an adpatation of it himself. When we discovered that it became me directing Heller’s adaptation. That was perfect. This has been a favourite book of mine since I was 13.”

This brings me up short. Thirteen? It seems very young for someone to be wrestling with the aspects of life that can induce despair.

“I was a really big reader,” explains Rachel. “I had read three quarters of Stephen King’s books by the time I was 13. Put it down to parental influence because my father and mother were always very big readers.”

Of Catch-22, whch was first published in 1961, Rachel says: “It didn’t do very well when it first came out but it picked up through the Vietnam war when everyone was saying, ‘Oh, my God, it’s happening again and this book is so refreshingly perceptive about corruption and bureacracy’.

“The play came out in 1971 (a year after the Mike Nichols film which starred Alan Arkin as Yossarian) and it hasn’t really had very much life. I think what’s special about the book and Heller’s adaptation is that they’re quite radical, formally and stylistically.”

Rachel says she was struck at her first reading of the script by its almost slapstick approach. In time, however, the “deeper, psychological underpinning” of Heller’s novel began to emerge through the dialogue.

Working in a freelance capacity for Northern Stage, Rachel gathered a talented cast of nine actors from around the country, including the North East, to play 30 characters.

Philip Arditti, a Rada graduate who appeared on television as Uday Hussein in House of Saddam, plays Yossarian who is convinced, understandably, that everyone is trying to kill him – the enemy because that is what they do and his superiors by getting him to fly missions against them.

Despite its universal appeal, this is an American story with American characters. “Everyone is working on their accent,” says Rachel.

Lunch break nearly over, Rachel insists that rehearsals are going well.

“This is the actors’ favourite part of the process because they all know what they’re doing,” she says with a brightness that brooks no contradiction.

They are returning now in dribs and drabs for another of Rachel’s “sweaty” rehearsal sessions. Before I leave, this clear-eyed and highly plausible young director makes mention of the set being devised by designer Jon Bausor.

Yet to materialise, it does sound really special. All will be revealed tomorrow when Catch-22 opens at Northern Stage in Newcastle where it runs until May 10 before embarking on a national tour taking in Birmingham, Liverpool, Southampton, Oxford, Derby and Richmond, Surrey.

Potentially it is another feather in the cap for North East theatre, for the actors and for a director who – with the proviso that the press night is not until next week, with reviews to follow – seems on course to enhance her reputation on this side of ‘the pond’.

For tickets to the Newcastle performances, call 0191 2305151 or buy online at www.northernstage.co.uk. A post-show discussion will take place on Wednesday, April 23. The show is recommended for ages 14 plus.

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