Like him or loathe him, Ned Kelly is an iconic part of the Australian cultural identity. Rough and masculine, a symbol of the outback, rebellious, anti-authoritan and violent and yet with the tendency to be well spoken and articulate, the ''man in iron" is a cult figure to the Australian cultural landscape.
The exploration of this noted figure in history is a bit of a different direction for playwright Matthew Ryan who is best known in recent times for his romantic comedy boy girl wall. Kelly couldn't be anymore of a technical and conceptual departure. Historical, gritty, heavy, charged with masculine violence, dark and visceral- the play plunges us deep into territory that has been of interest to Australian playwrights for the longest time. I am very familiar with the subject of the bushranger in theatre and film, particularly Ned Kelly. Being educated in drama in Australia the Kelly gang and their numerous on stage adaptations kind of go hand in hand. I praise Matthew Ryan for what he has achieved as innovation in a tried and true Australian history/theatrical fiction set-up. His Kelly has part of the poetic hyperbole of Douglas Stewart, part the gritty strangeness of Peter Carey and part of the blood-soaked filth of Nick Cave's "The Proposition" with a few new inclusions to the characters and their situation. I am full of admiration for the way in which Ryan neither praises and condones nor condemns Ned Kelly, his actions or legacy and focuses on the character drama. He is acutely aware that as much myth and as many lies surround Ned Kelly, his followers, deeds and legacy as there are truths and facts. So it seems fitting that Kelly arrives as a play that disputes the accuracy of all these things, it is a battle of different perspectives, opinions and points of view.
The setting; the grimy cell on death row of Melbourne Gaol as Ned awaits his date with the hangman has been superbly realized by designer Simone Romaniuk. A stark, verging minimalist and yet captivatingly claustraphobic plunge into the horrors of the bush-ranger era penal system it is atmospheric, edgy and superb. Similar the lighting and sound design conveys the brooding tone of the play, the horror that lingers behind and away from all of the action on stage. It is a wonderfully real show and has been conceived and imagined with real talent and authenticity. Director Todd Macdonald triumphs in this show which is a kind of historical meets character drama verging courtroom piece. A difficult show in terms of the way myth and reality are blended and characters contest their points of view, he has done well to uncover the many sided box of the script.
Leon Cain excels as Dan Kelly. The playwright Matthew Ryan himself speaks of how difficult it is to convey Dan Kelly and how there are few viable historical facts that surround him. In this absence of fact Leon Cain delivers realism and palatable believability. He is superb in his delivery or both the cowardice and torment that this play has created for him. He plays both a victim of the brutality of his upbringing and his life and having a strange relationship of being both a worshipper of Ned as well as his most vehement critic. He appears as having been both bullied and protected by the Kelly gang and he is a chaotic collection of regrets, self-loathing and seeking to pin the blame of all the wrongdoing on Ned. Leon Cain has delivered a fully fleshed performance and portrayal of someone who we do not know much about.
Hugh Parker is the virtuoso of the show. Moving in and out of the shadows and between roles he adds a palatable underscore and signature of real acting brilliance as he executes starkly different transitions.
A towering and incredible performance of unbelievable skill and mastery is delivered by Steven Rooke who brings us Ned Kelly in all of his brash ego, his crudeness, his violence, his sense of self importance and his own brand of being a victim of fate. Steven Rooke is to be praised on his display of narrative tightrope walking and he plays a man who is, finally brought to account for his life and is swinging, at times wildly between pride and regret, between bravery and cowardice and between being a hero or a villain. The audience is left with a very ambiguous feeling about the iconic Ned Kelly and Steven Rooke is to be praised on this. He neither panders to the legend, nor outright rejects it, he portrays Ned Kelly as someone unsure of what to make of himself, his deeds and his life. Viciously proud and yet with a need to atone for the evil he has committed, full of hate, vengeance and yet moments of tenderness and self-realization Rooke has imagined this role to its full and deepest proportions. A stunning, international grade performance! Bravo!
This is a very good play by one of Brisbane's most exciting playwrights. It doesn't give us the Ned Kelly we expect, in any spectrum of what we are used to expecting when we hear the name. Nor does it have that sense of a playwright mindlessly pandering to the Australian history niche by throwing us a cultural icon. I am not a fan of bush-rangers, nor stories about them, but this is a well thought out play, well written and designed with some absolutely whopping acting talent in it. Do not miss out!
Kelly shows at The Cremorne Theatre, QPAC until the 20th of October
Tickets and Bookings available from http://www.queenslandtheatre.com.au/what-is-on/mainstage/kelly/