Picture this: it’s Australia in 1948. War rations have ended and we’re just figuring out café-style dining. The first Holden comes off the assembly line. William Dobell and Sidney Nolan are painting up a storm; imports on horror films are banned; everyone’s reading Ruth Park’s A Harp in the South. Two songs run the music charts: ‘The Anniversary Song’ and ‘Near You’ (the latter is a real early-century banger).
On stage, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh’s theatre company tours the country. And novelist Patrick White writes a play called The Ham Funeral that freaks everyone out so much it doesn’t make it to the stage until 1961.
Why so freaky? Imagine seeing something like Waiting for Godot or Ionesco’s Rhinoceros without knowing what absurd or existential thought was, without even names for these new and confronting styles. (The Ham Funeral predates both these seminal avant-garde works). Now imagine that the last big thing that happened in theatre in your country was Sir Laurence Olivier (from the films! And London!) doing Shakespeare. In this context, The Ham Funeral is grotesque and unsettling and a little scary.
Of course, that’s what makes it so exciting. Inspired by a Dobell’s painting ‘The Dead Landlord’, and based in part on White’s own experiences in a London boarding-house, the play pushes at reality and the social contract of manners until it explodes into a parade of impulses and ideas. A young poet (played here by Sebastian Robinson) is sent out to gather the relatives of his freshly-deceased landlord. The man’s wife, Mrs Lusty (Eliza Logan) is larger than life and aptly named – hungry for life, love, and sensuality.
The relatives (played here by Jane Phegan, Andy Dexterity, Carmen Lysiak, and Johnny Nasser, resurrected after beginning the play as Mr Lusty) are from the British working class (the young man is a middle-class Australian innocent) but they are fascinatingly disinterested in class or status. They have no time for niceties. In this production, their costume and makeup is unbound by the usual constraints of gender or class. They seem to prey on vulnerability.
Director Kate Gaul has created a human circus, playful and uninhibited, and when her cast of characters are gathered together for this ‘ham funeral’ (the serving of ham is an indication of wealth) it’s a mess of quick humour and imagery drawn from vaudeville and pantomime; it takes nothing about the way we live or operate as people seriously. If we’re to take a side, it’s the side of the relatives, who are at least living honestly, hiding nothing.
Trailing the young man onstage is a figure who lives in his mind. She is called only The Girl (Jenny Wu), an apparition of a woman who is supposed, it seems, to guide the young man into his life’s true purpose. Wu is captivating but the character is extremely light; she feels like an afterthought.
Gaul has called the young man “a real dickhead”, and he can be – he’s cold and cruel to Mrs Lusty, her family, and the Girl from his mind – but he never truly seems to enjoy it; rather, it’s clear that the man is grappling with his self, trying to reject the id from his brain, hating what he’s afraid of in himself – instinct, desire, and naked want.
Logan’s Mrs Lusty is achingly likable and a little pitiable; the young man wrestles with his disgust for and interest in her. There’s a moment where he tries to choke her that feels ugly but not gratuitous, and Mrs Lusty is vocal about the mistreatment she has suffered in the hands of men – and here, White is not unsympathetic. Her surprisingly progressive statements are bound up in and countered by the abuse she suffers on all fronts; the play doesn’t quite believe she deserves better, but we do.
The play is traditionally performed on a multi-level set so the young man can literally descend into a darker world, but it’s simplified here in the tiny Stables space. Designer Jasmine Christie has created a dank and bare space that stretches into an eternity of blackness; Nate Edmondson’s sound design imbues that minimalistic set with ominous, murky atmosphere (the drip of a tap, an indeterminate rumble, and, with Hartley T.A Kemp’s lighting design, a sense of foreboding).
Looking back, we can place White’s play amongst later theatrical traditions of the Absurd and existential. It contains that ridicule of, and fascination with, the human animal; the broad recognition that social structures are nonsense; even a hint of queering the theatrical tradition. It’s lyrical and gothic and high-minded and funny.
Is it an entirely successful play? That depends on your measure of success. If you hunger for experimentation and innovation on stage, then it’s the right play for you. And if seeing it staged in 2017 serves as a jolt of inspiration and encouragement to all the Australian writers who are cooking up freaky, challenging ideas, then even better: we’re better as a culture when we’re making new, weird shit.