Patrick White’s 1947 play The Ham Funeral is the stuff of legend. It was inspired by William Dobell’s painting The Dead Landlord, and loosely based on White’s recollections as a young man in London.
White’s absurdist tragicomedy is a visionary text written before the seminary works of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. But in 1962, the Adelaide Festival rejected The Ham Funeral for performance, describing it as “an abstract play which the general public will find difficult and impossible to understand”.
More than 50 years later, the director Phillip Rouse has risen to the challenge of staging White’s dynamic yet challenging play at the New Theatre.
A young poet (Rob Baird) takes a room in a filthy London boarding house, crawling with cockroaches and strange tenants.
His grimy landlord (Zach McKay) is perpetually dressed in slippers and communicates in grunts and groans. His landlady, the voluptuous and aptly named Mrs Lusty (Lucy Miller), dreams of the theatre but instead wallows in a life of bread and rancid drippings.
When the landlord suddenly drops dead, Mrs Lusty seizes the opportunity to host an extravagant “‘am funeral” in his honour.
Miller’s performance as Mrs Lusty is the highlight of this production. In Miller’s hands, Mrs Lusty is a sordid, pleasing and insatiable creature with great emotional depth. Miller is also tremendously funny – the slow burn scene when Mrs Lusty hacks the funeral ham into ragged strips of meat is terrific.
The deep, tiered set design makes immense use of the New Theatre stage and evokes the hollowed-out squalor of a London boarding house.
When the poet leaves his lodgings, the downstage area is transformed into a grubby streetscape. Here, he meets two dirty yet dignified scavengers with tousled hair and ripped fishnet stockings. These knock-about ladies rattle through rubbish bins in search of treasure, finding fish bones, pearls and handwritten letters. Karina Sindicich launches into her role with gusto and charm, outshining her counterpart Brielle Flynn.
The production embraces the play’s vaudevillian style, with an opulent red curtain framing the action and a cheesy song and dance routine closing the first act. But these camp moments are poorly timed and executed, and are not big or bold enough to captivate our imagination.
Despite the delightfully vulgar language and bizarre characters, this straightforward interpretation of The Ham Funeral left me underwhelmed. A more daring vision is required to truly ignite the spark of White’s play.
The Ham Funeral is at the New Theatre in Newtown until May 25. Bookings: newtheatre.org.au.