Years ago I saw an adaptation of Patrick White’s novel, ‘The Aunt’s Story’ at Belvoir and wanted to poke myself in the eye with a blunt stick. You could see me rocking back and forth in the audience and murmuring like a mad woman, trapped in my own Hell and with no way out unless I walked across the stage. Etiquette won. Sanity lost. I stayed but I vowed to not do that to myself again and Patrick White has been persona non-gratis ever since.
Even when Belvoir and STC combined to put on ‘A Cheery Soul’, which garnered critical acclaim, I did not crumble. I would not risk it. Could not risk it. Instead I confined myself to reading his work, whenever I needed to bring myself down from whatever high I might have been on, until I found the one play I thought I might be able to handle without sharpening razor blades afterwards. That play was ‘The Ham Funeral’ and on Friday night, I jumped back into the breach and let it do its thing and I was not unhappy I did.
The New Theatre’s production of White’s play, directed and designed (set) by Phillip Rouse was, for the most part, an engaging interpretation of White’s work. The play deals with the young poet (Rob Baird) and his experiences as tenant in this surreal and tragicomic decrepit household and those of his landlords, the Lustys, especially once Mr Lusty dies and the funeral meats bring out the grotesque relatives. And there seems to be very little difference between Mr Lusty alive or dead and that’s the whole point.
When the performance embraced its surrealism is when it worked the best and this was most typified in the performance of Lucy Miller as the Landlady/Mrs Lusty. Miller holds this play together, finding the techniques that most express this style and the language of its writer. She dances between puppet-like dehumanisation, fluidity, slow or staccato rhythm and vocals, mechanical and dream-like in their formalism. The slow repetition of the cutting of the ham in the second act, the chorus of relatives in their violence and distorted sense of social function and the extreme emotions and instant transitions all aided in keeping its audience suitably uncomfortable so we could sit with the play’s ideas long enough to transmit their dark and disturbing meanings.
Rousseau once said “that civilisation has corrupted mankind” and we see this distortion in the fluid reality of the staging of ‘The Ham Funeral’. The slanted set, open and perilous, our landlords (Miller and Zach McKay) front and centre, our poet behind them, looking out over the world but never able to connect with it and off to the side, the ethereal girl (Danielle Baynes). Walls are implied but its openness reads to us of the constructivist playground for the biomechanics of expression in the play. The house also makes sounds- groans, cries- all representing the frustration and burden of life present in the house. The browns and tepid colours shown in set and costumes (Anna Gardiner) and again in lighting (Sian James-Holland) enhanced the bleak, depressing world where babies are born deformed, struggling for life and those of us that get to live have it much worse. Happiness lies on the other side of the wall but if you dare to open the door, it’s already moved and is out of your reach.
I thought I’d struggle watching this play but I didn’t. Dare I say, for what is a writer and a style that doesn’t rate in my Top 40, I enjoyed it. I thought Rob Baird needed to work on vocal clarity and how to speak the language of White but as Lucy Miller was so strong and supported by the ensemble including McKay, Kallan Richards, Ben Vickers and Steve Corner, so that even the potential misogyny was given a stylised rendering in keeping with this deformed world, I forgave Baird’s inexperience in utilising his skills more effectively.
The play’s meta-analysis of its own plight combined with the expressionist and surrealistic representations mean that it was not a simple transference of page to stage. Director Rouse has taken a very difficult text and space to showcase the play’s complexities and done a pretty fine job with it.
For those looking for theatre that doesn’t comfortably sit in the box, who don’t spend enough time thinking life vomits all over you, this is the play for you. For those of you who can connect to both of the above, maybe it's for you too. I didn't think it was for me. In this case, I'm glad to be wrong.