A stale retelling: Alison Croggon on Lost & Found’s Perth Festival opera, Ned Kelly
There’s something going on in the zeitgeist. Why these recent recountings of the Ned Kelly story? There was a new musical in Sydney last year, and now there’s Lost & Found Opera’s Ned Kelly at this year’s Perth Festival, composed by Luke Styles with a libretto by poet Peter Goldsworthy.
Yes, the story of the Kelly Gang is one of the major folk tales of colonial Australia, and Kelly himself is the subject of more biographies than any other Australian. But he’s already inspired a lot of art: most famously, Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series, which turned his crude iron helmet into an icon, and Peter Carey’s novel, The True History of the Kelly Gang. Why tell this story again?
The production looks promising. The poster for this opera – Jacqui Stockdale’s striking image Historia, a photograph of a topless woman, her face concealed by the iron helmet, her eyes staring expressionlessly through the slit, a gun clutched in her hand – suggests some kind of feminist spin. And it’s performed in an arresting venue – the former Jarrahdale Mill, an hour’s bus ride from the city (the bus is included in the ticket).
The setting and design are certainly spectacularly beautiful. As we disembarked from the coach, the final light was vanishing from the sky, a gold glow behind the darkening trees. From the auditorium the stage is huge: you can see the band to one side of the stage, and the whole back wall is open to the bush behind.
It felt disappointing, given this, to find myself watching a three act opera which re-states the conventional myths and speculations around the Kelly Gang. The tantalising promise of gender play manifests in a single homosocial scene, where a drunken gang member dresses up as a woman and does the Can Can.
Opera – and classical opera in particular – is, let’s face it, an absurd artform. It can be among the most overwhelming experiences you can have in a theatre, or the most alienating. When the sensual experience of opera unites all its complex parts, the result can be sublime. When it doesn’t, its incongruities jump up and slap you in the face: which is why I once got the giggles in the final act of La Traviata as our heroine, in full vocal flight, died of consumption.
This incongruity felt strong at Ned Kelly. Like most contemporary operas, it’s essentially a chamber piece, with a bespoke 17-piece band and a cast of six; but the addition of a community chorus of 24 brings it into the purview of classical opera. It took me longer than it should to adjust to the idea of this story of the Australian Irish underclass being represented on the operatic stage.
To be fair, the poverty-stricken underclass is well represented in classical opera, where over the years figures like Carmen have become a picturesque spectacle for the well-heeled. There’s a whiff of that around Ned Kelly: at one point, as the chorus swirled around the stage doing an Irish jig, my mind’s eye conjured the stage direction: “colourful dancing peasants”. The echo of older production conventions is just too strong.
It’s a big challenge to take on such a well-worn myth – Kelly’s helmet is, after all, a cliché as much as it’s an icon – and attempt to refresh it. This Ned Kelly doesn’t throw a new slant on the old story so much as trick it up in some novel clothes. Its major concern is the argument that’s been raging since Kelly was hanged in Melbourne gaol: is he a revolutionary, a victim of the predatory class system, a callous murderer, or all of those at once?
It’s well performed under Janice Muller’s direction by a stalwart cast, most of whom, aside from Sam Dundas as Kelly, play various roles. The community chorus is a spectacular addition – it’s unusual to see so many bodies on stage for a contemporary opera – but it feels under used. They mostly sit in various groupings around the edges of the action, being part of the set design.
The acoustics of such a huge performance space are challenging, which means that the music is at times a little muddy. The text is mostly audible, but I lost enough words to wish that there were surtitles, or even a copy of the libretto printed in the program; especially as the doubling sometimes made it confusing to know who was playing whom.
Goldsworthy writes Kelly’s story as a kind of Oedipal drama, in which his rebellion is sparked by his obsession with the injustices dealt to his mother. Kelly goes postal after his mother Ellen (Fiona Campbell) is imprisoned after an incident in which a police officer is either assaulted or assaults Kelly’s sister Kate (Pia Harris). As with the murders of the three police officers at Stringybark Creek, what happened depends on whose account you believe.
In his program note, Goldsworthy talks about the opera as a kind of trial cum pub crawl. The action takes place in three hotels, with the audience standing in for the hostages taken by the Kelly gang: we hear evidence from different people and make up our own minds on Kelly’s culpability. But the staging works against this idea – the performance space is too huge to induce anything like the intimacy of being held hostage in a claustrophobic 19th century country hotel. Rather, we’re looking down from well outside the action.
The narrative goes back and forth in time, hampered by a lot of recitative with cast members singing explanatory narrative to each other and bogging down the action. The flashbacks, and the narrative’s circular movement back to the beginning (it begins and ends with Ellen Kelly) means there’s a lot of repetition, which tends to be deadening rather than a delightful, surprising rhyme.
There’s also a strange tonal dissonance between the libretto and the score: a sense that Goldsworthy was reaching for the light and comic, even the cartoonish, while the music had more epic ambitions. Luke Styles’ score, like Goldsworthy’s libretto, draws heavily from folk music, rejigged as motifs for a string and woodwind band complemented by a couple of acoustic guitars. Heavy percussive elements, including corrugated iron, reinforce the thematic presence of iron – Kelly’s armour, the shed in which we are watching the show. These contrast with moments of lyricism which are at times sheerly lovely, especially in a bush scene where whistles evoke native bird life.
I wasn’t sure about the rewrites of the two folk songs, Wild Colonial Boy and Moreton Bay, which are threaded through the show. Sometimes it seemed to me that Goldsworthy was playing with the ballad scansion to create a comic effect (I can’t believe Goldsworthy’s dodgy scansion is a mistake). The variations feel heavy-handed: they’re not changed radically enough to be surprising, nor are they faithful enough to be pleasing.
In short, although most of the time it held my attention, none of this opera’s promising elements quite come together. But this feels to me like a deeper problem, a question of stale thinking.
It certainly feels odd in 2019 to watch a story that never questions its focus on the white men at its centre. Ellen Kelly, despite the claim that story is “about” her, is only ever a function of Ned: a victim of his notoriety, a mourner of his death. The Aboriginal people who lived in regional Victoria and New South Wales are nowhere in the picture, although there are stories that Kelly had a romantic relationship with an Indigenous woman he nicknamed Mitta-wong-boing (Kangaroo in the local language) and that the local Pangerang people helped him to evade capture by the police. There’s no sign either of other immigrants such as the Chinese, although Ned was prosecuted for robbing a man called Ah Fook in 1869.
You have to ask, why aren’t these people visible? They certainly exist as part of the history of these men. Why do we keep perpetuating these erasures in our central myths? I can’t help thinking this rash of interest in the Kelly story is a symptom of anxieties in contemporary white Australia. Here, comfortingly, are the old conflicts, the old enmities: an origin story that asserts a claim of blood to a contested country. The same old story we’ve heard so many times before.
Ned Kelly, composed by Luke Styles, libretto Peter Goldsworthy, directed by Janice Muller, conducted by Chris Van Tuinen. Designed by Charles Davis, lighting design by Karen Cook. Performed by Fiona Campbell, Sam Dundas, Pia Harris, Robert Macfarlane, Adrian Tamburini and Matt Reuben James Ward. Lost & Found Opera, West Australian Symphony Orchestra and Perth Festival. Closed