hamHam Funeral
Written by Patrick White
Directed by Ariella Stoian
Tuesday 26 – Saturday 30 July 2016
PACT Centre for Emerging Artists

The Young Man – Mitchell Why
Alma Lusty, the Landlady – Penny Day
Will Lusty, The Landlord – Lynden Jones
The Girl – Sonya Kerr
First Relative – Dominica Nicholls
Second Relative – Ben Gageler
Third Relative – Chris Mckay
Fourth Relative – Emily Burke
First Lady – Madeline Clouston
Set Designer – Phillip Rowe
Costume Designer – Azure Schofield
Music Composed by Hence Therefore
Stage Manager – Kate Gogolewski
Photography by Stephen Godfrey

Reviewed by Nathan Lentern

Traipsing through a minefield of taboos, Patrick White’s The Ham Funeral is shocking and challenging in 2016. That it was written in 1948 speaks lucidly to White’s flare for moral ambiguity.

The production centres around two disaffected and despondent antiheroes, a poet wracked with ennui (Mitchell Why) and his landlady Mrs Lusty (Penny Day) who has fallen out of love with her slovenly husband (Lynden Jones) and out of patience with her life of menial tasks and Spartan comforts. The poet perceives excitement and liberation in the enigmatic boarder who rents the room across the hallway from his own (Sonya Kerr). Mrs Lusty perceives it in the poet. She also sees in him the son she lost in childbirth who would now have been around the same age. She develops a confused combination of maternal affection and lustful hunger for the younger man who in turn alternates between arousal and revulsion at her advances.

When Mr Lusty abruptly dies, the poet becomes even more deeply interwoven into Mrs Lusty’s affairs. Mrs Lusty declares that her late husband is to have a lush and decadent funeral with ham – the same food as their wedding. The poet is dispatched to round up the late Mr Lusty’s residents, whereupon he meets two homeless women searching bins for treasures before they flee the scene howling “murder” after discovering a foetus in there.

At the funeral, Mr Lusty’s relatives taunt Mrs Lusty with the knowledge that she had willed his death and even contemplated his murder. Their bullying is vulgar and relentless yet effective at exposing the darker demons of the widow’s character. Our poet, who by this stage is the only remaining character with which we can remotely empathise, is torn between sympathy and disgust.

This production as a whole stirs emotion and concern in its audience though when placed under a microscope there are shortcomings with individual elements. In some cases, this is the fault of nobody in particular. White’s prose is often both ornate and euphemistic, requiring intense concentration and a degree of deciphering at the best of times. But when a truck rumbles past, a forgivable mumble becomes a source of consternation. And when it becomes difficult to hear White’s florid little soliloquys, his painstakingly chosen words are robbed somewhat of their delicacy. But when you could hear you were occasionally left with the impression that the performer, particularly Mitchell Why, wasn’t entirely confident in the meaning of White’s lofty language – at times the dramatic flourish, the emphasis, the pointed look to the audience just didn’t seem to match the actual words that left the speaker’s mouth.

The play could almost be broken into two forms of dialogue: Conflicts and reflections. The conflicts were when the performance was at its finest, sizzling arguments, caustic invective, sickening bullying and soul crushing pain. The eponymous Ham Funeral scene was all this writ large as the revolting relatives all swagger and delight mock and taunt the confused and flustered Mrs Lusty, turning their sordid innuendos on the poet when he intervenes to defend her. The reflections on the other hand fall flat. Delivered mostly as soliloquys by Why and Day, they tend to be lengthy, repetitive and predictable.

The highlight was the enigmatic girl that lived in the room across the corridor. Witty and spirited, she was a confident foil for our poet’s neurosis. Their exchanges through the wall though excruciating for the poet were a delight for the audience. Emotional, adroit repartee between two young, intelligent wordsmiths. I only wish White had given her more dialogue.

Despite some specific shortcomings, The Ham Funeral works as an overall performance. What we are made to feel is less clear, these flawed yet sympathetic antiheroes create no shortage of internal conflicts. The set is appropriately dank and musty, while our poet’s neat and bookish outfits cut an effective contrast with the more slovenly and old homely attire of the Lusty’s enhancing his sense of non-belonging.

A special mention must go to Lusty’s relatives in particular the first relative Dominica Nicholls whose swaggering nastiness is so vile and so triumphalist as to fill the audience with nausea.

On the whole The Ham Funeral was a solid production. It made us think, it must us feel and it challenged our preconceived certainties in a provoking and grimly amusing fashion.

Nathan Lentern is a writer and performer.