The Ham Funeral – Phillip Rouse gives a new spin on Patrick White. (Theatre Review)
When a company courageously takes on a play write as significant as Patrick White and a play as complex and potent as The Ham Funeral, it must be acknowledged that the production is a kind of literary criticism in itself. This is the position director Philip Rouse finds himself currently. To direct The Ham Funeral, is to analyse it and contribute to the ongoing discourse around the work, something that I can imagine might be quite daunting for a director.
One of the most interesting aspects of Patrick White’s plays is the ongoing debate about whether they are good or not. Or rather – we all understand them to be good. But are they great? Or rather, am I missing something? With The Ham Funeral the audience reaction can be anything from uproarious laughter all the way through, a still and concentrated focus to downright dead and not even being sure when the entire thing is over. The same show and the same interpretation can produce any and all of these responses on different nights.
Rouse’s Ham Funeral plays down the vaudeville and caricatures the male roles, thereby coming across as far more serious, which ends up reducing the misogyny of the play – something that has become more and more of a problem, especially as there is an interest in understanding why female directors veer away from Patrick White. Mrs Lusty (magnificently played by Lucy Miller) is brought to the fore in this production while the young man, our poet and possibly White himself (played by Rob Baird) is set a little back from her. It almost seems like Mrs Lusty’s play, and the men look like sad charms on her bracelet. She is still a tragic figure, but the pathos is more calculated than oppressive. Lucy Miller is an excellent actress and also very beautiful. Seen through a contemporary lens, the misogyny occurs as quaint and silly, rather than damaging. Even when the young man rejects her advances with all its tragic overtones.
Despite this interesting nuance, The Ham Funeral remains very much a post-colonial Gothic play and it carries many of the devices of post-colonial Gothic such as identity, haunting, the anima, rites of passage, the great house as the old land (decaying and dying – London), home, growing up etc. The Gothic is particularly invoked through non human characters such as an anima and a speaking house. It is here that sets and costumes become so important, Anna Gardiner doing an astoundingly good job of creating outfits that traverse time. At once, the play could be set in the 1800’s, the 1920’s, the 1980’s or 2200. Significant is The young man’s “normal clothes” that set him among an almost surreal dreamlike setting, giving way to a dialogue that is deliberately hard to place. The set is close to other productions of the play, the three-tiered decaying house, except that it has a dry rot look rather than a decadent slime or ooze. It makes the set look more Australian which posits itself well against the London-ish costumes of the chorus of men. Again, rather than square the play in a solid setting, it transports it across time and across nations – almost as if the dank decay of London were being examined by a future dry sandy decay of Australia.
If every depiction of a Patrick White play must contain its own literary analysis of the play it serves (or that serves the production) then it must come to terms with the meta fiction within White’s work, which at the apex of his dramaturgy. White folded plays back upon themselves, using them to examine their own content in a very meta way. When the Landlord dies, the young man claims he has been left, or rather abandoned to continue the play alone. He can’t find his place initially, and the play has to take over while he finds his feet and finds his place in his decisive dance with the landlady. The house itself has a missing side so that the audience can see into the rooms within – it’s the missing fourth wall famously traversed in meta narrative. The audience can see through it, but the characters cannot, as clearly indicated when the landlady looks at herself in the mirror that rests on the fourth wall.
I’ve read also that White anticipated Beckett, and as a huge Beckett fan, but not nearly as well read with White, I have to confess I noticed this in The Ham Funeral, especially this version. The Ham Funeral is written in 1947 while Waiting for Godot is written in 1953. There are striking similarities in tone and in the relationship between the play and the audience. It struck me as a rather interesting excercise to examine other parallels between the two writers lives, seeing as they were similar age and were writing at the same time. The Ham Funeral is clearly steeped in the same soil of European Modernism that gave rise to great plays of the time like Waiting for Godot. It is interesting that this play is not spoken of in the same hushed tones that other great plays of this era are – for it is as good as Waiting for Godot. I hadn’t seen all this in the play prior to seeing Rouse’s version. I can only assume it is his intention to bring this to the fore.
Rouse’s production makes good use of The New Theatre. Lighting pools over different characters as they speak, bringing the work alive, as if it were different sections of a house. At times the lighting gives off the feeling we are peeking through windows, adding to the voyeuristic nature of the play itself. The two ladies and their shrieks and moans complement the heavy drama of the play and act as seductive oddities when they open and close the curtains, making their strange presence felt as if they were ghosts of the theatre itself.
I hadn’t seen The Ham Funeral performed before, so this was a real treat for me. It is a wonderful play and an exciting production and one that needs to be seen. You can buy your tickets here.