The Ham Funeral runs at the New Theatre from April 23-May 25 2013. By Patrick White, directed by Phillip Rouse.
The Ham Funeral is an expressionist play written in 1948 and first performed in the 1960s, but it reminded me of nothing so much as William Wordsworth’s 1802 preface to the Lyrical Ballads. In this preface, Wordsworth talks at length about how he wants to be a poet of the people. He talks about how poetry should be something the common man should enjoy, thus getting closer to the essential passions of humanity. He eschews intellectualism and champions the triumph of nature over art, choosing not to rely on “poetic diction” but to use common language that everyone can understand.
I should probably add here that I hate Wordsworth’s poetry, and I think that he fails in his project. I devoted a considerable amount of time in my undergraduate career arguing that his poems were banal and smug (and I defy anyone who has read Expostulation and Reply and The Tables Turned to disagree with me). Unfortunately, The Ham Funeral reminded me of him in the wrong ways. One of the things I dislike most about Wordsworth is the way he claims that he wants to make poetry for everyone and yet he still elevates the figure of “the poet”: he wrote in the preface to Lyrical Ballads that the poet possesses a “more comprehensive soul” than other people. The main figure in The Ham Funeral, a poet (Rob Baird) reminded me a great deal of Wordsworth, desperately trying to get close to real life but still holding himself apart, imagining himself to exist in an artistic, intellectual world, where he both thinks and feels more deeply than everyone else. I think it would have been possible for me to dislike the main character, a poet, and still be engaged in the play, but unfortunately it did not turn out that way.
(I also think it’s interesting that The Ham Funeral reminds me so much of Wordsworth, that champion of simplicity, when it was controversially rejected from the Adelaide Festival in the 1960s for being too difficult. I'm not sure what the implications of that are, but it's interesting.)
The Ham Funeral is inspired by William Dobell’s painting The Dead Landlord. It is set in a boarding house run by the Lustys (Zach McKay and Lucy Miller), where that oh-so-reminiscent-of-Wordsworth poet lodges. He is apparently trying to experience real life so he can immortalise it in his poetry, but finds himself in somewhat over his head when the landlord dies and he finds himself mired in a tangled web of relatives, muse, and landlady. His artistic, intellectual world clashes with the fleshier, more visceral world of the aptly-named Mrs Lusty as she tries to seduce him. The web of genre is likewise tangled: there are elements of the Gothic, poetry, bildungsroman, something vaguely Dickensian, with a soupçon of something a little like The Sorrows of Young Werther.
The script is, if nothing else, unusual, and as someone who is interested in narratology and genre theory and that kind of thing, I found its strange mix of genres very intriguing. However, overall, I found this show, like its protagonist, dull and kind of self-important. White’s script is a tragicomedy, and while there were some laughs from the audience, for me, this production felt so desperately earnest that the comedy was mostly lost. There’s a poem by Wordsworth called To Joanna, where he takes a girl (not coincidentally called Joanna) up to the top of a mountain, has one of his I’m-communing-with-nature-look-at-me-I’m-a-poet-I’m-so-awesome moments, and she laughs her arse off at him. I’d like to say the protagonist was Wordsworth, because then it would okay to laugh at him. That would make the landlady Joanna, and the exploration of the class and intellectual tensions between them could be much more engaging. (Neither the poet nor the landlady’s worldview is endorsed in this play: they achieve, at best, an uneasy truce.) Unfortunately, however, the show is Wordsworth, dull and self-important, taking itself way too seriously, making me feel like Joanna. I felt like the comic elements – some of the vaudevillian stuff, for example – were glossed over. The overall aesthetic was much more realistic, and it ultimately resulted in a kind of dramatic imbalance, the tragic part of tragicomedy outweighing the comedy. Put simply, this show needed to laugh at itself more.
Overall, The Ham Funeral just did not work for me. While there are interesting issues of class and intellectualism explored, the show did not grab my attention. There are definitely intriguing elements, but the show is imbued with a kind of pomposity I did not find especially appealing. I wanted to tell it to loosen up and have some fun. Other people (perhaps those who don’t feel like I do about Wordsworth) might get more out of it than I did, but sadly, this show was not my cup of tea.