The Ham Funeral
State Theatre Company of South Australia. The Odeon Theatre. 7 Mar 2012
Patrick White is the only Australian writer to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he was given in recognition of his epic and psychological narrative art. He wrote the Ham Funeral in 1947, but had to wait 14 years to see it produced.
White has quite popularly developed themes of loneliness, the basic alienation of existence and the natural struggles which an individual faces to find fulfilment, in his writing. All of these themes are relevant in The Ham Funeral, and the overall feeling of the play is quite depressive and existential.
White also wrote with similar resonance in his novel The Living and the Dead where themes are contradictory and revolve around the characters being physically alive, whilst remaining emotionally dead. White gives these characteristics to the Landlord and his wife in The Ham Funeral.
Director Adam Cook has commissioned a grotesque set, which for all intents and purposes serves the function of the play very suitably. Dividing the upstairs and the downstairs, and creating another contradiction – a paradox of a life lived freely (or is it?) but the Young Man, a poet, played by Luke Clayson, and the lives of the Landlady and her husband, Mr and Mrs Lusty, in the basement below.
The poet shares his space upstairs with his alter-ego or other self, a girl played inspirationally by Lizzy Falkland. Lighting played a major role in developing the conflict between the poet and himself (the Girl) though it was illustrative I don’t feel that it was overly satisfactory.
Most successful however is the costuming of the characters, particularly the relatives, from Designer Ailsa Paterson. Dressed clownishly in greys, blacks and whites and acting all together over the top, they achieve something of an absurdist or expressionist style - characteristically common in White’s work, where non-realistic lighting, setting, language or action aided in the creation of another dimension which was designed to transcend the realism of the story.
Luke Clayson plays the Young Man very well; his inner conflict is clear and his energy suitable. The soliloquies however were lacking in this same conflict and felt altogether forced.
As Landlady, Mrs Lusty, Amanda Muggleton has a mighty job on her hands, and I believe performed excellently. Running the gauntlet of emotions, from loss to lust, loneliness and love, Muggleton capably delivered an engaging characterisation which was connected both to the misery of Mrs Lusty’s existence and to the comedy in White’s writing. I found this a truly exciting performance to watch.
Geoff Revell and Jacqy Phillips did well with their characters First and Second Lady, providing welcome relief from the depressive opening scene. Their characterisations were light and light hearted. Jonathan Mill and Jonathan Elsom gave nicely rounded characterisations (no pun intended), Elsom working particularly well with his facial expressions – and Mill, offering a most vacuous performance as Mr Lusty.
White’s writing is amongst some of the best Australian literature available for dramatic production (and his books are pretty good too). I recommend seeing this show, as it is a work so rarely performed and an experience every theatre lover should appreciate.
When: 8 to 18 Mar
Where: The Odeon Theatre - Norwood
The Ham Funeral by Patrick White.
Directed by Adam Cook for State Theatre Company of S.A. Odeon Theatre. 1 - 18 Mar 2012.
Patrick White’s 1947 absurdist play The Ham Funeral premiered in 1962 by the University Guild at Union Hall in Adelaide. Genet and Ionesco were writing plays with a similar approach at the same time and absurdist theatre is far from being everyone’s cup of tea. The Ham Funeral certainly was not acceptable to the Board of Governors of the 1962 Adelaide Festival of Arts.
The Ham Funeral is set in a lodging house in London at an unspecified time although White suggests that the Young Man, a self-described chorus/observer/commentator, should wear clothes from about 1919. The dank and dismal lodging house is run by the ex-wrestler Will Lusty and his wife Alma, who is still mourning the death of their child. The action takes place just before and after the Landlord’s death.
This is a play for the director and the actors to make or break.
The high points were the performances by Jacqy Phillips and Geoff Revell as the two scavenging ladies and then as relatives; Jonathan Elsom as the First Relative; Jonathan Mill as Will Lusty and Lizzy Falkland as the Girl. I don’t think that Luke Clayson yet understands how to just play with words and I was disappointed with Amanda Muggleton’s inconsistent performance as the Landlady although she does have some affecting moments.
I disliked Adam Cook’s interpretation of the play, especially his approach to the Scavengers and the Relatives. Humour works by setting up one set of expectations and providing results that are logically opposite – grotesque, however, is not automatically funny; in fact it can produce the very opposite effect.
In his book Theatre of the Absurd, Martin Esslin writes that the rehearsals for Ionesco’s play The Bald Prima Donna started in a grotesque setting and costumes and were going nowhere. The director called in a new designer who did not read the script and was told to design a set for Hedda Gabler based in 1948 contemporary London. After this change The Bald Prima Donna never looked back.
The set for The Ham Funeral by Ailsa Paterson clearly reflects Cook’s directorial requirements and I did not like it. The Cloud-Cuckoo-Land curtain that greeted us on arrival may have classical allusions but for The Ham Funeral it was just too illustrative. Comparisons are odorous but, as one of the few in the audience who saw John Tasker’s original 1962 production of The Ham Funeral, I prefer my memories of that version.
The Ham Funeral is a Festival production and continues at the Odeon until the 18th of March.
Originally Reviewed for Radio Adelaide
An abridged version aired on the 5th of March 2012