In its Australian premiere season, chamber musical Ned Kelly, My Love presents a new and poignant angle on the legendary story of Ned Kelly.
Writers of the hit Broadway musical Wicked have described the show’s scenario as The Wizard of Oz with the focus of the camera shifted to the left. After reading new research, writer Xavier Brouwer pans left to reveal the moving love story that played out alongside the infamous exploits of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly.
The opening night performance was introduced by researcher Paul O’Keefe, great-great grandson of Ettie Hart, sister of Kelly gang member Steve Hart. The narrative begins with Kelly’s reunion with Ettie upon his release from jail. Attracted to the man beneath the fiery temper, Ettie’s love for Ned is challenged by his escalating violence. Still, Ettie remains loyal, and is close at hand for key incidents in Kelly’s life, even bringing him sheet metal for his iconic suit of armour. Left behind by Ned at his passing, Ettie faces the rest of her life with just the secret memory of their love.
With the misdeeds and tribulations of the Kellys already dramatized on a larger scale in 2015 musical Ned, Brouwer focuses on just three characters in this concise, 75-minute musical. In keeping with the heroic legend of Ned Kelly, third character Sergeant Steele is seen as the antagonist, a Javert-like bully who is increasingly driven to capture Kelly as the reward money swells.
Brouwer captures the lexicon of mid-1800s Australia without sounding jingoistic. Likewise, his music has a gentle, natural sound that steers clear of folksy bush ballads. It can be a trap for writers to direct their own material, but Brouwer has handled both aspects with neat precision, presenting a well-paced, involving show.
In an impressive feat, lone guitarist Luke McDonald plays the new score by heart. Dressed and bearded to fit the period, McDonald’s visible presence would be well served by brighter lighting when he comes on stage for the songs.
Contributing both set and costume design, Valentina Serebrennikova makes excellent of the space and creates an authentic period feel. Ettie writes at her desk atop a wooden platform, while elements of foliage and fallen branches portray the untamed bush setting. Jessica Rowland’s projections expand the range of settings, with stained glass windows for a church and the high iron bars of a jail cell.
Lighting designer Maddie Seach bathes the action in the hot dry light of the outdoors, and enhances settings with dappled light under trees, and shadows of church windows and jail bars.
Brouwer, Serebrennikova and Seach work together effectively to create offstage action that is vital to the storytelling. Moments such as the Stringybark Creek police murders and the fire at the Glenrowan hotel are portrayed by offstage voices accompanied by lighting and sound effects.
The climactic appearance of Ned Kelly in metal armour and mask has a powerful impact. Top marks to Serebrennikova for her exacting creation of this costume.
As well as being strong actors and having very faithful period appearances, the three actors impress with their acoustic delivery of the songs. Musical preparation is sufficiently thorough for the music to be performed without a conductor. With just one guitar as accompaniment, Brouwer is blessed with the musicality of each cast member’s voice in creating a rich melodic sound.
In her characterisation of Ettie Hart, Caitlin Berwick presents a strong-willed, upright woman who is torn with the sympathy of her love and her principles over what is right and just. Being in love with a bushranger, Ettie could have been portrayed as air-headed and easily influenced; Berwick’s version is far more interesting and affecting.
Christian Gillet uses his rich bass-baritone voice and imposing physique to great effect as Ned Kelly. While the requisite love-affected scenes are slightly emasculating, Gillet nonetheless creates a stern, determined man who is prone to aggressive outbursts of temper. While Gillet’s voice slightly overpowers Berwick’s in duets, they each sound wonderful in their own way.
Emil Freund is relentlessly dark as insufferable trooper Sergeant Steele. While Steele’s pursuit of Kelly is understandable, his appalling physical treatment of Ettie is uncomfortable to watch (which is meant as a compliment to the writing and performance). The fact that Freund can still uncover the humanity beneath the actions is impressive indeed.
New Australian musicals deserve strong support from lovers of the art form. The quality of Ned Kelly, My Love adds to its appeal.
Ned Kelly, My Love plays at Brunswick Mechanics Theatre, Melbourne until 13 November 2016.
Photos: Michael Diakakis