Cremorne Theatre, QPAC
Kelly is not the play that I expected. It’s better, and more interesting. In fact, it’s one of the best pieces of theatre that I’ve seen in Brisbane this year.
When I saw the poster for the Queensland Theatre Company’s latest production, with its bushy-bearded star and “such is life” tagline, I felt the whiff of primary school history books, not to mention the 1970s movie Ned Kelly, in which a sexy-lipped Mick Jagger immortalised those very words in a so-bad-it-was-embarrassing faux-Irish accent.
I didn’t read the blurb for the current play (deliberately — I like to turn up to the theatre without preconceptions if I can), so it wasn’t until the lights went up and the production unfolded that I realised this is not another recounting of the well-worn Kelly narrative. Instead, it’s a prison-cell drama dominated by one long conversation between Ned (Steven Rooke) and his brother Dan (Leon Cain).
Now, if you recall those school history books, you may be groping through your memories trying to work out what seems wrong in that previous paragraph. Didn’t Dan Kelly . . . die? In the siege at Glenrowan . . . well before Ned and his wonky armour were carted off to Old Melbourne Gaol?
Well, yes and no, and this is the first of many aspects of the Kelly myth to be interrogated by this interesting and powerful production. While official versions of the siege have Ned as the only survivor, rumours have swirled for years that Dan escaped and fled to Queensland (just like a Neighbours’character). Possible Dans were sighted in Ipswich, Toowoomba and the Channel country.
Taking this as his starting point, Brisbane playwright Matthew Ryan (of boy girl wall and The Harbinger fame) considers what would happen if the surviving Dan were to pay a visit to his condemned brother on the eve of Ned’s hanging. What wounds might fester, what conflicts would flare, and what might each seek from the other in their last hours together?
The result is an original and surprising take on the Kelly tale, one that picks apart many of the long-held assumptions regarding the ‘hero’ outlaw and his gang. Was Ned a man of the people, a brutal bully, or both? Was Dan a frightened boy or a coward who failed his brother and his friends? What were the relationships between the various gang-members, and how many of these subtleties have slipped away in the making of a national myth?
Ryan tackles these big themes through two artfully drawn characters, who are convincing not just as individuals but also as brothers. Rooke (a regular on Brisbane stages, who won a Matilda award for his body of work last year) is physically impressive, with a remarkable resemblance to the real Ned. He is in turn strong, cruel and tender with his younger brother. Cain (another reliable Brisbane performer and Matilda award-winner) brings Dan’s fears and longings to life, crafting a young man for whom it’s easy to feel sympathy.
It’s a credit to Rooke and Cain and the playwright that what is essentially a 90-minute dialogue gripped me for its duration. Ryan skilfully uses the ebb and flow of the conversation to capture fraternal undercurrents and shifts in power. Careful plotting and a series of surprising revelations (all based on historical research, as I learned when I Googled Ned and Dan after the play) also help to maintain momentum.
The script and stars are supported by effective staging and costumes, and by third cast-member Hugh Parker, as the prison guard.
For me, the play’s only significant flaw arises at its conclusion, when Ryan feels the need to drive home key themes in a way that I found unnecessarily heavy-handed. This aside, however, Kelly is my pick of Brisbane theatre productions so far this year, and proves that, in the right hands, even a story told a thousand times can be made new.
KELLY runs until 20 Oct at the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC. www.qpac.com.au
CORRIE MACDONALD is a Brisbane freelancer who writes about many things in many places.