The Ham Funeral is one of the richest and most significant plays in the Australian canon. Written by Patrick White in 1947, when he was still a relatively young man and an almost completely inexperienced playwright, the play remains a fiendishly difficult prospect for directors and actors alike.
The surreal world of White’s play is unlike any other in the Australian canon, and although there are touches of the existential terrain explored by Beckett and Ionesco, The Ham Funeral predates the majority of work by those leading exponents of absurdist/existential theatre.
But the play doesn’t even have the formal neatness of a Beckett or an Ionesco — it’s sprawling in its style and incorporates its vaudevillian, music hall influences into a very sophisticated piece of drama.
At the centre of the play is an unnamed young man (who bares some similarities to White himself when he was searching the world for his own voice) living in a dirty, damp, crumbling London boarding house.
Living beneath the young man are the wise but uneducated Mr and Mrs Lusty, his landlord and landlady. The young man has a polite and friendly relationship with the pair, but when Mr Lusty keels over and unexpectedly dies, the young man finds himself becoming immediately closer to the grieving Mrs Lusty, and helping her in organising the titular funeral.
Kate Gaul, one of Sydney’s most insightful, confident and versatile directors, is entirely up to the challenges presented by the play, and has created a production that sings with all the music and poeticism of White’s text.
The play usually features a multi-level set, with the rented rooms of the boarding house above, and the Lustys’ basement below. That kind of staging would be impossible, given the confines of the Stables Theatre, but the dark, slick and simple set, designed by Jasmine Christie, allows the focus to be thrown onto the performances and text.
Gaul’s use of the Griffin space, with the help of Hartley T A Kemp’s lighting, is ingenious. Her blocking is more representative than naturalistic, but the spaces of the boarding house seem perfectly defined. Nate Edmondson’s sound design suggests the setting brilliantly, with all the subtle creaks and drip-drops of the old, ramshackle house, while his music creeps in at exactly the right moments.
Gaul has assembled a cast who are able to tread the fine line between the dark and the light in this black comedy.
Sebastian Robinson brings across all the innocence of the young man. There’s a suggestion that he might be on the cusp of something, and the events of the play represent a significant turning point for the character.
Eliza Logan is excellent as Mrs Lusty — a character whose overt confidence and sexuality proves a strong influence on the young man, but is cowed in the presence of her husband’s relatives. It’s a superb, bawdy performance, and there’s a palpable sense of sadness that Mrs Lusty is being left behind in this world.
Johnny Nasser has the requisite quiet crankiness of Mr Lusty and then transforms effortlessly into one of Mr Lusty’s relatives. Carmen Lysiak, Andy Dexterity and Jane Phegan make up the rest of the quartet of oddball relatives, while Jenny Wu is a perfectly ethereal presence as the girl who lives across the corridor from the young man.
This is an entertaining, imaginative, first-rate and crystal clear production of one of the most idiosyncratic plays ever written by an Australian playwright. It’s no fusty museum piece, but should be seen by everyone with an interest in the handful of plays that make up the Australian theatrical canon.
Featured image by Lucy Parakhina