Australia has a serious lack of its own cultural background. And while the fact that we are a patchwork of so many different nationalities and cultures is one of the best and most unique things about us, it doesn’t do much to create a clear, defining sense of what it is to be ‘Australian’. Other nations have a wealth of history to draw on, hundreds or thousands of years of heritage that have accumulated to forge a powerful sense of just what belonging to a certain country means. So when a country has only one genuine myth to draw on, is it any wonder that people are so attached to it? Maybe Ned Kelly means so much because he’s one of precious few cultural touchstones representative of something that, if you squint, could be a sense of Australian identity.
It’s an idea that Melita Rowston’s one-woman-show 6 Degrees of Ned Kelly briefly flirts with exploring, but ultimately falls short of having anything meaningful to say about. Still, as Rowston takes the audience on a journey into the heart of Kelly Country searching for the truth about misty-eyed family recollections, it’s hard not to feel a distinct sense of how much this history does mean to our people and to our country. Throughout the show, Rowston utilises clips from the 1970 Ned Kelly film starring Mick Jagger as well as the soundtrack of the 2003 Heath Ledger version, all interspersed with visuals of the land Kelly roamed and the endless monuments and merchandise he has inspired. The show starts as an attempt to figure out how true a beloved tall tale of her grandfather’s really is, but quickly the veracity of history loses importance as Rowston relates a series of equally strange, funny and moving anecdotes from the various people she met on her quest for answers.
Some of the humour in the play is a little glib and forced, and an opening involving a deliberately bad re-enactment of Kelly’s last stand feels pointless and awkward. But Rowston’s passion for the material shines through and it’s hard not to get somewhat invested in the mysteries she explores. The show is at its strongest when it hinges predominantly on the stories that make up the vast majority of its fabric, stories that underscore the ways in which myths become a universal force that can bring people together.
The stories range from people’s complicity in the theft of Ned Kelly’s bones to the many men over the years who have claimed to be a surviving Dan Kelly in disguise. There are family stories about Ned Kelly’s secret sweethearts and how he was scared of certain pubs and the tough-as-nails women who ran them. The chances of any or all of these stories being true are slim, but that’s not really the point. Even images of tacky Kelly re-enactments or the especially awful animatronics museum in Glenrowan bear vestiges of the mythic quality that underpins so much of what is associated with Kelly’s story.
I grew up in the middle of Kelly Country and as a kid read everything I could get my hands on about his story. I was practically giddy at any family drive to Beechworth or Glenrowan and loved visiting Ned’s haunts. Watching this show reminded me of how it felt to love a story that is so uniquely of our country, a legend that belongs entirely to us. Appreciating that the show is probably more powerful to anyone who already has a connection to the myth, 6 Degrees of Ned Kelly is a lively, entertaining and thought provoking, if uneven, exploration of a great story.