The Ham Funeral is a play that will not engage all of its viewers. I say this bluntly at the outset because of the wildly polarised opinions I've heard and traded since watching it.
"I must go in soon and take part in the play, which, as usual, is a piece about eels."
Wild discussion during the funeral
Written by Australia's only Nobel Laureate Patrick White, The Ham Funeral opens in textbook White fashion; An old man (Zach McKay) breathes in raspy detachment as his chirpy wife quibbles through their kitchen/basement. Life is long, whithering, sometimes cruelly interminable. Fortunately (a comment of personal taste) this sense is not instilled through action, we see it through degradation in the set, costumes and character temperaments.
The narrative arc hinges on a young, naive poet (played by Rob Baird) caught in typical existential woe, who boards above his landlords - the old man and his wife. He feels oddly detached from life but is thrown into a frighteningly immediate existence when the old man dies. His wife plans the funeral, a grand 'ham funeral', where family member gather.
Unfortunately the acting in this play is not especially good. The young poet especially fails many times to lift the script into actual theatre, which is particularly awkward when he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. Zach McKay as the old man, who doubles as one of his relatives, probably gives the most compelling performance, followed closely by his wife (Lucy Miller).
The play is a post-modern retrial of the troubled poet, whose pathetic wondering are shown to be narcissistic and largely self imposed. The bulk of the dialogue is referential and symbolic; realistic only in moments of expression but rarely in conversational exchange. The characters exist in a space where interpretation is dangerous in the mixed comprehension that exists around them.
Certain scenes explode from silence, seemingly without provocation, verging on the supernatural at times. We are not sure if what we see is a theatrical presentation for what the young poet sees and hears or actual apparitions he is negotiating inside the dank household.
All in all I thought the play was very intellectually engaging. The set, with its multiple entry points and different levels and perspectives is built creatively and adds a lot to the play. The acting, as I've said is mixed, probably worse overall than it is good. The humour in places is so dark and abrupt that it's difficult to laugh - some people find this very disconcerting. In the end I think it's a dense piece written by one of Australia's greatest literary minds, packed with meaning if you're willing to sit through the play and unpack it. People looking for an easy, enjoyable theatre experience should probably skip this one.
It's difficult to give this play a rating as its values and downfalls are so sparse. I'll settle for a three out of five with an asterisk.