THE HAM FUNERAL by Patrick White follows the activities of a group of characters in a decrepit, damp boarding house. The owners of the house, Mr and Mrs Lusty, rent out one upstairs room to a young man, the poet, and the other to a young woman. When Mr Lusty dies, Mrs Lusty decides to show respect for her husband by inviting his friends to a splendid funeral feast, where the “piece de resistance” is a large ham.
This simple storyline, however, does not do justice to the complexity of Patrick White’s play, which is expressionist in nature. White has acknowledged the influences of Strindberg, Ibsen and the German Expressionists in his writing.
In this play, White explores the ideas of growing up, and voyages of journey and discovery. The young poet is trapped in this house and must leave it to in order to develop artistically. He spends most of his time lying on his bed in his upstairs room, looking at the ceiling, thinking about his poetry and the young woman in the room next door.
He never meets her, and we see her only as a shadow-like figure on a swing. She is, in fact, not real, but rather the poet’s idea of the perfect woman, or perhaps his feminine side. She contrasts sharply with the central character, Mrs Lusty, played compellingly by Lucy Miller, who is definitely all flesh and blood.
Mrs Lusty exudes life, in contrast with her husband, who is physically alive, but emotionally dead; he was quite inanimate even before death, sitting in his chair, smoking his pope noisily, and avoiding engagement with life. Mrs Lusty, aptly named, wishes to “suck the marrow” out of life. She has had several sexual encounters, gave birth to a son, who has since died, and is eager to engage with the young poet, in a desperate sexual game which is much more than he expects from his landlady. She is eager to live her life to the full, and it is this that makes her such an engaging character.
The two Ladies, played by Karina Sindicich and Brielle Flynn, were fabulous. They created energy on stage, with their gothic costumes, and their taunting movements, particularly their feline exploration of the garbage bin.
The set is quite simple, but works well to suggest the two levels of the house, and also its decaying, lifeless nature. The playful vaudevillian music is engaging and reinforces the non-realistic aspects of the play.
This is not an easy night at the theatre, but it is a rewarding performance which encourages the audience to think about their own engagement with life. Are we “sucking the marrow” out of life, or letting it pass us by?
The New Theatre’s production of Patrick White’s THE HAM FUNERAL, directed by Phillip Rouse, opened at the New Theatre, 542 King Street, Newtown on Thursday April 25 and runs until Saturday 25th May, 2013.