Kelly (Queensland Theatre Company)
The Arts Centre Gold Coast
March 13 – 14
“Kelly” opens in November 10, 1880. Ned Kelly (Steven Rooke) is in his prison cell, the day before he is due to be hanged, having been found guilty of the wilful murder of Constable Thomas Lonigan at Stringybark Creek. A priest enters to give him his last rites, however, the priest is soon revealed to be Dan Kelly (Kevin Spink) – Ned’s younger brother believed burnt to death at the gang’s final fateful stand against police at the Glenrowan Hotel. He has come to stay goodbye and set things right before fleeing to Queensland, seeking forgiveness from his older brother for his own cowardly part in the final confrontation with police. But first, Ned has some questions about how Steve Hart died.
Ned is unrelenting and defiant (“I choose the rope” … “I don’t want to pass quietly; I want to pass noisy as hell”) but also light-hearted in some of his brotherly taunts. Indeed, in his initial interactions with the prison guard (Anthony Standish) before Dan’s entry, he presents a barrage of blasphemous insults (“You’re so ugly that the loneliest dog in the world wouldn’t f**k your face”, authentically in keeping with his penchant for lyrical language and the tone of his 1879 Jerilderie Letter, dictated to Joe Byrne, in which he refers to the police as ignorant unicorns with puny cabbage heart looking faces.
Although this provides much of the play’s humour, it belies the depth of drama and consideration in this eloquent imagining. And there is much eloquence to Matthew Ryan’s script, which is witty, dramatic and thoroughly well-written, with clever foreshadowing in Ned’s pondering of possible final words and disgust with the death mask made after Mad Dan Morgan’s execution. And one can only anticipate what he comes up with in next month’s “Brisbane”, the play he has been commissioned by QTC to write about Brisbane during World War Two.
“So what’s this about anyway?” I amusingly heard someone in the row behind ask as the show was about to begin. Perhaps you do need some prior knowledge. History reveals that Dan and Ned disagreed and has also brought forth the myth that Dan survived Glenrowan and fled to Queensland (no less than four men claimed to be Dan Kelly at the end of their lives, the show’s program reveals). And there is also long-held rumour of a homosexual relationship between Dan and Steve Hart, another member of the infamous gang. The only thing missing is acknowledgement of the political nature of Kelly’s plight and his belief that that Irish Australians had to throw off the yoke of oppressive British colonialism to secure their rights, which is only hinted at in throwaway lines.
Under Todd MacDonald’s direction, “Kelly” is full of dramatic moments as Dan confronts Ned for putting a death sentence on the gang members’ heads through his actions at Stringybark Creek. And as the impulsive and full of self-importance Ned, Rooke is fearless, bringing the character to raging life, despite the barrier of shackled hands. “Read the newspaper,” he says with undeniable presence; “I’m a national hero”. Indeed, each of the three actors puts in a sterling performance, even Anthony Standish, who doubles and triples as backstory characters to present a layman’s view, as well as reappearing as the gleeful guard who taunts Ned with details of his impending fate
“Kelly” is certainly an intimate show and the staging is appropriately simple in its minimalism, with the action taking place in a wall-less raked box of a cell, almost like a boxing ring, about which the brothers dance around before they square off. This is enhanced by Ben Hughes’ beautiful lighting, which warms the moments of recollection in subtle transition from the reality of grey-tinged goal life.
As the tale of a man whose story has outgrown his life, “Kelly” has all the elements of great tragedy and high drama, which makes it an entirely engaging theatre experience. Told with such intimacy, this take of the fractured band of brothers, serves only to remind audience members that this is the story of a young man (Ned was just 25 when he died). While initially Ned is positioned sympathetically, through recall of his heroism in saving a young boy from drowning, he is also presented as a character of little remorse, wanting burial in consecrated ground, not to save his soul but because he deserves it. (“You killed people!” Dan reminds him. “But they weren’t very nice,” Ned replies.) Similarly, the audience is presented with two possible, equally powerful versions of Fitzpatrick’s last moments at Stringybark Creek, allowing audience members to come to their own conclusions about Ned’s place as national hero or glorified horse thief. In doing so, “Kelly” boldly presents its hypothetical story in a gritty, gripping manner that makes it a must-see Australian work.