The Ham Funeral – Theatre as the ruin of discursivity. (Theatre Review)

The Ham Funeral

Siren Theatre Company and Griffin Independent

17 May to 10 June Griffin Theatre

You can grab your tickets here.

The dramatic death of Mr Lusty and the ensuing ham funeral in his honour should have heralded the departure for Australian culture from our mouldy, illicit landlord England, toward a celebrated separateness. Instead it was famously rejected by the 1962 Adelaide festival for which it was written, only to establish itself as a banner for a counter culture buried rather than fecund under Australia’s oppressive cultural cringe. We still flail wildly when untethered, continually refusing The Ham Funerals narrative bildungsroman and its call to reject the seductions of any contemporary Mrs Lusty. Particularly in theatre, the great pillars of London and New York shackle us like the stubborn mules we are to a standard long forgotten and rarely realised by those cities. We praise the obedient in our writing culture and refuse, above all else, those who may find us a distinct and separate voice from the rest of the world. The two great monuments to this refusal are Patrick White and Christina Stead, though now that Jonathan Franzen told us to like Christina Stead (and she is a woman after all and therefore fashionable) we will give her room. But Patrick White, in all his terrifying wisdom lies off to the side still, having only received that odd Scandie nod to let us know that he even exists.

White is lauded to a degree, but even that symbolic rejection by the 1962 establishment has been re-membered as a prudish rejection of naughtiness rather than a statement regarding Australia’s weak-willed passion for anything-not-its-own. Australian’s familiarity and subsequent affinity with playwrights like Miller, Mamet and Williams leave gaps in our ability to autotomise nationally, not to mention to push our writers to deeper exploration of our collective psyche. Patrick White, knowledgeable and yet suspicious of international styles, sees such designs as a dressing up of dejection and an outwitting of arrogance. In The Ham Funeral we see Patrick White making short work of our wretchedness.

The Ham Funeral, despite its interminable obsessions with degradation and forced humility, cruelty and resentment, absurdity, vacillations and murky innermost sentiments allows its protagonist to eventually find salvation in the Second Coming of writing; that which marks the transition from knowledge to thought; the victories of which humanity is capable. What is the demystification of the muse other than the discovery of the only thing that matters? That is the idea that literature thinks, that writers must be thinkers. We know from experience when a piece of writing secures a victory in our own minds that literature’s effect takes place at the level of thought. Literature is a kind of imminent reference to itself, a mark of its own self-sufficiency which leads inevitably to the emergence of a literary conscience. This literary conscience is not one of artistic judgement, since it relates not to the rules of taste, rather to the conviction of the existence of an entirely different phenomenon: the literary fact, as compact and distinct as an idea. Is this not the journey of our young Australian Poet fighting his way crudely from the arms of the engulfing and consuming Londoner, Mrs Alma Lusty?

Just as Freud argues that the first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilisation, so our poet needs to make his way into the basement – his ID – to confront Mrs Lusty, demystify his muse and leave the house via his newly empowered Super-Ego. Deliciously, Kate Gaul does away with the three component of the psyche in her single level house, symbolised only by the great table Mr Lusty will call Love. The Griffin Theatre doesn’t lend itself to this multi-leveled symbolism, but Kate Gaul uses breadth instead of depth to create the journey to realisation our poet makes within himself. Nate Edmonson infuses the room with the creaking and moaning sounds of the circumventuous rotting house, forcing the invisible story’s to the stage such that we never doubt they are there. In this way, under Kate Gaul’s direction, The Ham Funeral becomes not just a literary thought, but the form of that thought. As a fiercely independent and yet working director, Kate Gaul manifests the idealised vision of Patrick White; that the writer become absent in the face of the thinking word. When Kate Gaul directs him, Patrick White is at last accompanied by a successive manifesto of the work becoming absolute. Our poet becomes The Ham Funeral fully realised.

This brilliant to the point of complete staging of The Ham Funeral carries the awareness of its own innocence and therefore puts an end to that innocence. Literary desire is always knowledge of its own form, a kind of calculated self-interest inflicted upon innocence. The Ham Funeral, the thinking Australian literature, embodies this. Through Kate Gaul’s direction, the writing is free to assert that it’s thinking is also the thought of a thought, turning the thinking into a closed area.

From the pure perspective of production, the play is an essential part of the theatre goers 2017 calendar. True to White’s vaudevillian love, The Ham Funeral is entrenched in a crumbling carnival aesthetic, consistent to the Dobell art work that spawned the original spark of the play. The chorus cast of Carmen Lysiak, Jane Phegan, Andy Dexteritiy and Johnny Nasser are suitably creepy as the repulsive family, and Nasser brings his own wit to the wisdom of the dead landlord. Sebastian Robinson is our poet, soaking his lush words with a superb transitional accent and Jenny Wu is the floating, exquisite animus. However,  just as the play belongs to Kate Gaul, so it belongs to the roaring performance of Eliza Logan as the great Alma Lusty, the motherland, the place of our dead, dustbin birth. Logan takes the role and makes an adventure of a meaning which a world struggling with a singular language has proposed as its question. The Ham Funeral is officially set in London, but there is no doubt in this production you are watching the emergence of a ferociously Australian psyche.

In the fear of the other lay the seeds of unease about our selves. The Ham Funeral forces us to accept a contemporary absence of our white Australian world. Yet, as Alain Badiou would say”… it holds within that absence of a world an outline of our world, its drawing, its watermark, a sketch on the walls of an underwater cathedral, a network of event traces that are to be traversed and assembled.” It is in theatre that The Ham Funeral strums its corresponding vibration in our soul, and in Kate Gaul’s direction that Patrick White finds a true vehicle for his voice.