Queensland Theatre Company
QPAC Cremorne Theatre
15th September – 20th October 2012
Reviewed by Matty Gharakhanian
Almost all of the facts in the script surrounding Ned Kelly are as true as possible. But the real history is a bit murky anyway. Keep in mind Ned was a notorious liar, mainly because most of what we have him on record as saying he was saying to the police – whom he had no qualms in lying to. And the police at that time would often lie to make themselves look better so no one really knows for sure. My goal with Ned is simply to capture the spirit of the man. To make audiences feel they’re really in the room with him. I don’t think anyone’s successfully done that yet.
The real Dan Kelly is something of a mysterious figure and there isn’t a lot of information about him in the history books. He tends to pop up in the confrontations, completely fail to do what is asked of him and Ned then has fix things. I used this idea as a building block to create the fictional character but took a lot more artistic license with him than Ned. Dan carries more of the folklore side of the story.
Do I think Dan escaped? I think it’s a fifty-fifty call. There are eye-witnesses that say he died. And there are eye-witnesses that saw Dan in the weeks after Glenrowan, heading for Queensland. There’s a grave with an unrecognizable body in it in Greta. And there are reports of a man named James Ryan out at Ipswich who claimed to be Dan and told stories about The Kelly Gang that no one else should know. I like the uncertainty of it all. It’s ripe geography for fiction. Matthew Ryan
“Shotguns and body bags.”
Directed by Todd Macdonald, Matthew Ryan’s Kelly is a brilliant re-telling of Ned Kelly’s story, played out in the outlaw’s final moments. Kelly sits in a small jail cell, drunk and feeling sorry for himself until his brother visits and their shady past comes back to haunt them.
Simone Romaniuk’s set, lit by Ben Hughes, consists of a raised square platform with a dangling cage, ceiling and a tiny bed to represent a basic jail cell. Nothing more was needed. Why? The entire show was one scene. A single 90-minute scene with rapid lines, witty repartee and a cohesive story. Sounds boring? Are you asking, “How could this possibly remain entertaining for that long?” Fear not, for not a dull moment was had. Kelly integrates fact and rumour, such as Dan Kelly’s death and homosexuality, the family history and their many run-ins with and harassment at the hands of the law.
The acoustics are exceptional and Guy Webster’s eerie soundscape complement the show and its vibe. Having a limited and minimalistic stage, the cast show us that they don’t need fancy props or an elaborate set design to tell a story. All that is needed is a little imagination and the ability to enjoy being taken on a journey through the words of less than a handful of talented actors. Before you know it, the stage is a ghostly replica of a grimy old jail cell containing a man about to be executed.
“It’s your spirit they’re after.”
Now, if anyone reading this is sceptical about another story on Ned Kelly and the Kelly clan, they should feel free to leave said scepticism at the door. For an old tale, this new spin on the Kelly story is nothing but fresh. Matthew Ryan’s script is the key to this, injecting occasional humour into a play that boasts witty dialogue and a fluid, considered story.
I’m mostly known for my comedy so I think this one is going to be a shock for some people. My work tends to be very story driven. I’m very structured. I’m much more interested in the action of a piece and what’s happening between the characters than I am in any grand political explorations. I tend to just let that stuff bubble up gently. Matthew Ryan
Hugh Parker plays the role of the spiteful prison guard exceptionally well and Steven Rooke (Ned) and Leon Cain (Dan) are outstanding. Dare I say, Cain as Dan stole the show. This production delves into the story of the weaker, lesser-known Kelly who lives in Ned’s shadow. The actors play their roles superbly, with such strong conviction. Some throwaway lines have us chuckling while other lines leave us stunned into silence. Their performances are intense and raw and their anger palpable and believable. Their booming voices and confident, no-holds-barred performances grasp the audience’s attention and wouldn’t let go. Rooke is the bleary-eyed and angry imprisoned man, accepting of his fate. Cain is powerful as the complex, gutless and conflicted brother, posing as a priest and asking for forgiveness and a blessing (something that was not easy to ask for, given the circumstances).
“You came to ask a dead man for the right to live.”
Dan and Ned play the proverbial tug of war between their recollections of past events as well as who was in the right or wrong and who held the moral high ground. They take family dysfunction to a whole new level. Problems start seeping through the cracks in their relationship as one big issue is alluded to early on. Eventually, through conversation and re-enactments, we are taken through various moments and past events until finally, we come full circle, back to the original problem and discover the unholy truth of what happened.
The banter between Ned and Dan is based on Irish rhythms of conversation. Their parents were Irish immigrants and while there is some debate as to whether Ned himself had an Irish accent, I really wanted to capture that amazing lyrical quality of the speech patterns – if not in the actual words then at least in the pacing and timing. It seems to be in my own blood because once they started talking in that rhythm I couldn’t shut them up. Matthew Ryan
Kelly is a 90-minute roller coaster ride in a jail cell and every Australian should take it.