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Northern Stage presents first ever UK tour of US classic Catch 22

Whether or not you've read the book, you'll have said its title a thousand times. Barbara Hodgson talks to the lead actor of Catch-22

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

It's a satirical novel that coined a now well-worn phrase. Catch-22, the title of the sharp 1961 satire by American author Joseph Heller, is the now-bandied-around term used to sum up a problem situation whose solution ends up back at square one.

In Heller’s smart, sassy novel, which took him about eight years to write, it’s used to describe the situation facing an air crew at a US base during the Second World War, where Captain John Yossarian and his bomber squadron know that asking for an assessment of their mental state (in the hope of being found not sane enough to fly risky missions) would be a demonstration of sanity in itself.

And that’s just part of it. Similar military and bureaucratic catch-22s surface throughout the book whose claustrophobic air was captured in a 1970 film set in a Mediterranean island base with the men going stir-crazy.

Now, over 50 years on from the time Heller introduced us to his mixed bag of characters, Northern Stage is bringing them to life in the first UK touring production of his classic tale.

Following the success of the Newcastle theatre’s take on northern classic Close the Coalhouse Door in 2012, followed last year by Blue Remembered Hills, this promises an equally sparky, funny new production of a novel cited as one of the great literary works of the 20th Century - and the late author’s most famous.

At the helm of Heller’s stage adaptation is New York director Rachel Chavkin, whose company The Team has enjoyed success at the National Theatre in London, and leading British designer Jon Bausor who worked on the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games and is from Gateshead. Northern Stage’s artistic director Lorne Campbell says: “We expect this to be a landmark production of Heller’s classic text. It’s one of those rare pieces of great art that manages to be complex and simple at the same time.”

From the book’s memorable opening line: “He was going to live forever, or die in the attempt,” readers get the measure of what’s to come in the confines of the frequently absurd world in which Yossarian and the men are trapped. As they focus on ways to maintain their sanity while they see out their service so they can return home safely, they are always at the mercy of that no-win catch-22.

It’s a tale told in non-chronological third-person narration, describing events from the point of view of different characters.

The lead actor grappling with the book’s many conundrums and sharp dialogue is Philip Arditti who plays Yossarian and is excited about the chance to put his stamp on a role not yet seen on stage.

He says: “I read the book once before many years ago - lots of people do in their late teens; it was very much part of the culture at the time - but I couldn’t remember much.” Now he’s enjoying what he calls “good, argumentative, dynamic dialogue and really theatrical”. He adds: “To me Yossarian is a healthy, intelligent, hot-blooded, testosterone-fuelled young man who wants to live life to the full in the way he wants. I really do like him. A lot of people are like that; it’s easy to identify with him.”

A world away then from Arditti’s best-known role: as Saddam Hussein’s vicious, drug-addled rapist son Uday in TV four-parter House of Saddam.

“Completely different!” agrees the 33-year-old, but then how he feels about a character is only the starting point. How he decides to flesh it out is another matter. “It’s harder with a character such as Uday Hussein.” he explains. “He’s such a mean person, it’s in some ways more rewarding to find something inside all the evil. Because he was a man full of layers, it was really difficult to get to the bottom of him, how he was as a child, how he grew up at the time.

“Yossarian comes across as much more open and ready to connect to his feelings.”

He adds: “My job is to really make it work and to believe in it,” but delving into characters always reveals inconsistencies. He points out: “We are all full of contradictions. There’s good and bad in everybody. You can’t write someone’s character on a piece of paper.”

Originally from Turkey, Arditti has lived in London since his late teens and the actor’s CV has grown hugely since his graduation from RADA in 2004, with radio, lead stage roles at National Theatre; TV, including upcoming BBC2 seven-parter The Honourable Woman, directed by Hugo Blick and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, and film projects such as Exodus, a Biblical saga with North East director Ridley Scott, which stars Christian Bale as Moses. He says: “I act as his guide for some of the film but I got a much bigger part in The Honourable Woman so I’m excited about that - I play quite an evil guy and half of my face is disfigured. I had to spend about three hours having prosthetics.”

Arditti has worked in Newcastle before, not long after embarking on his career and before Northern Stage’s revamp, when he appeared in Alan Lyddiard’s last show 1001 Nights Now.

He recalls: “The architects took us around the theatre which was just a shell and showed us where the dressing rooms would be and asked us for our views on how they should be designed. And now I’ll have the opportunity to actually use them. If anything’s wrong, I’ll only have myself to blame!”

He adds: “I love Newcastle. I’ve been quite a few times now and, with one of my first jobs being there, it has a special place in my heart.”

And he wants us to be able to connect with his new character who, from a minority community in New York, is “a young man trying to make his way within a difficult system”.

“It happens to be a war but his situation really can be the case for many people in England.” At a time of cuts, fewer opportunities and perhaps the prospect of life of benefits, someone of a certain background can find it impossible to escape the system and enjoy life. “What does a young man like that do?” he wonders. “It’s catch-22 and really doesn’t allow him a lot of room for planning.

“I’ll be delving into the mechanics of the play and trying to understand and explore in what way the story is important to the people who will be watching in Newcastle and around England.

“It really is a very important story. There’s a reason the book is always in the 100 best books ever lists all the time. It’s because of the quality of the idea, of people being caught in catch-22, whether by environment or within themselves: that idea resonates in people’s imagination.”

Joining Arditti in the cast will be local actors Michael Hodgson and Christopher Price plus Victoria Bewick, Daniel Ainsworth, David Webber, Geoff Arnold, Simon Darwen and Liz Kettle. Director Chavkin said: “The cast is extraordinary. All got Heller’s humour and intelligence and immediately snapped into the line between character and caricature that the script walks.” She wants to get right its “absurd comedy, deadpan horror and amazing hero/antihero”, adding: “Audiences can expect period music, jitterbugging, purgatory antics and moments of quiet at the end of the world. And humour of course. Heller’s, and mine.”

Northern Stage’s Catch-22 runs April 19-May 10 before a tour. www.northernstage.co.uk or 0191 230 5151.

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