Culture

Theatre

Ned Kelly as you’ve never seen him before

By Steve Dow
Composer Luke Styles on his opera that casts the bushranger in a new light

Such is life. Those are Ned Kelly’s widely reported final words, uttered before being executed in 1880 at the age of 25 for murdering a constable. But The Argus recorded that, as the hangman sought to restrain him, the Irish-Australian bushranger actually plumped for the less memorable, “There is no need for tying me,” as his gallows goodbye, as well as the more prosaic “Ah well, I suppose it has come to this.”

The celebrated but easily contested memory of Kelly’s final words is just one example of how Australia’s generally conformist population has long mythologised the national identity as defiant. We nod in our comfort to the Rum Rebellion of 1808, which saw armed soldiers depose Governor Bligh, and the 1854 Eureka Stockade on the Ballarat goldfields when miners rose up, onward to the short infamy of Kelly and his cohorts in country Victoria, robbing banks and shooting at authorities. Artists and academics, however, have dug through the heroic myths to challenge the macho hetero-masculinity of the nationalistic white Australian rebel story.

In the mid 1940s, for instance, Sidney Nolan repeatedly painted Kelly sidekick Steve Hart in a floral dress riding a horse, based on historic truth. In 2000, Peter Carey’s novel True History of the Kelly Gang – adapted as a feature film by Snowtown director Justin Kurzel for release later this year – had Hart, as well as Kelly’s brother Dan and their father, John “Red” Kelly, frocking up. Historian Manning Clarke wrote in his A History of Australia that Kelly gang member Joe Byrne had shared a “David and Jonathan friendship” – a biblical reference to an intense, platonic and possibly romantic, love – with another young man.

A new 80-minute work by the Western Australian company Lost & Found Opera is simply titled Ned Kelly (premiering at the Perth Festival, February 15–19). To be performed outdoors at a timber mill at Jarrahdale, 47 kilometres south-east of the city, the work takes up the cross-dressing theme as enthusiastically as the pig stealing and opium smoking that colour its depiction of the Kelly gang’s DIY-armoured republican fervour.

In his short life, Kelly had already been a horse breaker, log splitter, fence builder, stonemason, bullock driver and whiskey distiller. The Australian-born, London-based composer Luke Styles, who collaborated on the opera with librettist and novelist Peter Goldsworthy, says: “Looking at that mythology of Ned Kelly from a different angle can reveal a searching for identity through this individual, who’s trying all these different jobs and dressing up in different costumes … That itinerant bush worker, that jack-of-all-trades, man-of-the-land aspect for me represents the changing identity,” says Styles, 36, seated in a cafe in Sydney’s Manly during a summer family visit, “which is a metaphor for Australia generally.”

Kelly also reportedly raised bees, establishing a family tradition of beekeeping, says Styles. North-east Victoria was famed for its honey, and according to Ian Jones’s book Ned Kelly: A Short Life the “beemen” of the area would also prove useful in his outlaw years. “The beekeeping is mentioned in the opera as part of the rich spectrum of skills and identities Ned possessed,” says Styles.

Mirroring the “Molly Maguires” during the great famine of Ireland – vigilante male Catholic farmers who sometimes disguised themselves as women to take violent revenge on their Protestant overlords – the Kelly gang were known to have dressed themselves as women to evade police. “That’s cross-dressing with a practical endpoint,” says Styles. Steve Hart, however, won a horserace in the town of Greta dressed as a woman while riding side-saddle, says the composer: “Steve’s more interesting in that he seemed to be quite at home in a woman’s dress.”

Styles sees that predilection for frockery continued in other, more recent examples of popular culture: “The cross-dressing aspect of Australian culture is also a unique part of our identity. Even when I was growing up in the 1990s, you would see on The Footy Show these macho men dressing up as women. That idea of dressing up as women is so ingrained in the culture. Then there’s [Barry Humphries’s character] Dame Edna. Those layers of irony and the contrast between those identities competing as political and social faces challenge the idea of the macho, stereotypical bushranger.”

The six opera singers are to be accompanied by an onstage folk band, as well as separately by 12 members of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Baritone Samuel Dundas takes the role of Ned. Ned’s younger brother Dan is sung by a tenor, Matt Reuben James Ward, while mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell sings Ned’s mother, Ellen Kelly.

Styles’s most recent work is On Bunyah, a song cycle based on the poems of Les Murray, Bunyah being Murray’s home town on the mid-north New South Wales coast. The cycle will have its Australian premiere in May at the Coriole Music Festival in South Australia’s McLaren Vale. Styles’s other works include the satirical cabaret take on US politics and pop culture that deals with abortion issues, Unborn in America, directed by Peter Cant, which uses the “completely ironic” subtitle of “a pro-life opera”, Styles says.

Born in 1982, Styles was a music student at the Newtown High School of the Performing Arts in Sydney, where he was interested in drama. He had some small parts in soap operas, but felt he could channel all his artistic interests through the composing he had begun at age 16. He moved to the UK for further study in 2001, and he has been based there since. A former young composer in residence at the Glyndebourne opera house in Sussex, Styles has composed seven operas to date.

Do we know if Ned Kelly ever sang? “There’s accounts of him singing in the pubs, and to the kids, and [of] his mum [Ellen] teaching him songs,” says Styles. “There’s evidence people said he was a good singer. So Peter Goldsworthy and I have imagined that he probably sang ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’, that he is the wild colonial boy, but we have imagined that as one of Ellen’s songs, ‘The Wild Colonial Girl’, which is much more her story that she passes on to Ned. Peter’s totally rewritten the words.”

Styles believes that Kelly had a vision for a republic of north-east Victoria, as a microcosm of what an Australian republic could be, and the opera nods to Kelly’s republican sentiment. One scene, for example, Ned expresses a desire to see Queen Victoria, then on the throne, on trial. The composer, meanwhile, remains interested in how Kelly’s rebellion and that of the miners at the Eureka Stockade settled into a conservative Australian complacency for the status quo, with support for the monarchy rising again in the 21st century. “It’s a question to ask because of that swing back,” says Styles. “Why are we still so beholden to the colonial masters?”

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.

@dowsteve

Image: Jacqui Stockdale, Historia

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