Ned (A New Australian Musical) opened on Friday night at the new Ulumbarra Theatre in Bendigo. The choice of opening show was inspired: a musical about a story that infuses Australian identity and culture. The choice to open with an untried new work was a risk. It hasn’t paid off. Ned tries so hard to be a “hit musical” that it’s never allowed to find its voice or tell its own authentic story.
However, being in the new theatre is worth the easy trip to Bendigo (about two hours from Melbourne).
It’s a re-development of the Sandhurst Gaol that opened in the 1860s and was only closed in 2006. Ulumbarra’s a Dja Dja Wurrung word meaning “meeting place” and the theatre reclaims the grim building and the surrounding space with light and warmth. The entry hall is lined with the unchanged cells. The thick concrete doors are open, but it’s not easy to step inside one; it feels too like being buried alive. It’s nicer to stay in the plush and new with its easy-to-see exits. It’s creepy but so welcoming and positive that there must be lots of confused ghosts wandering around with us.
Away from the cells, the 1000-seat theatre and has donor plaques on seats and a “new theatre” smell that evokes anticipation. With a huge stage, comfortable seats, great sight lines and good leg room, this is a regional space that will be hosting the world’s best companies and shows.
A new telling of Australia’s world famous bushranger and prisoner is perfect to open this new space.
Kelly’s story is one that continues to shape contemporary Australian culture. It’s a big white story about a young man who unwittingly claimed his space as a hero, even if the facts don’t hold firm. His armour (that’s also currently in Bendigo) is an iconic image, his dictated Jerilderie Letter means we know what he thought and how he spoke, and his plaster death mask haunts like no photo can. This story has been explored and re-told countless times; his was the first story told in Australian film, Sidney Nolan’s series of Kelly paintings are recognised by people who don’t see visual art. The material is endless and the opportunity to explore this legend from today’s point of view is unmissable.
Which all leave this new work empty and insipid.
When Ned opens with Kelly about to be hanged and a projected image of his death mask, there was hope that it was going to be a story that stripped away the myth and looked at the man whose plaster face closed his eyes on the world. The hope begins to drain as the ensemble sing “How did you die?”.
The cast and ensemble are the highlight of the show. Many of the young cast are recent VCA Music Theatre graduates and there are exceptional voices and heartfelt performances that never let the material overwhelm them.
But Ned doesn’t work as a musical, a story, or an exploration of Kelly or the society that created and continues to re-tell the Kelly story.
It sounds like a “musical”; especially as the Les Miserables references abound. The songs are singable, but are missing thematic connection to character and connection of music structure to story structure. And, apart from the nod to Irish music, there’s little musical reflection of 1800s Australia. As it was being presented in its 1880s context – with an historical accuracy that’s as clean as the men’s moleskins that still have the leather labels on their bums – I was listening for hints of bush music or the memories of the first European Australian songs, which were ballads about bushrangers.
None of this might matter if the songs did what songs in musicals do. At the most basic level, songs move action forward or tell something unknown. At their best, songs reveal the soul and heart of the characters. This is what makes music theatre so astonishing. The ridiculous notion that people burst into song makes sense because they are singing what they can’t say, sharing their secrets like a soliloquy. The songs in Ned say what we know, stop the action and the rhyming-dictionary lyrics have no sense of the rhythm and poetry that make lyrics soar.
Again, I keep thinking of Australian bush ballads. It’s a template begging to be used.
And the songs may be better than the book. Facts aren’t story. Making goodies and badies isn’t story. Story is watching someone fight for, and sometimes fail, on the way to reach the goal that will change their life. It’s understanding why people make the wrong choices. It’s dilemma and tension that only breaks when impossible choices are made. Story is taking what we know and telling it in a way that makes us re-think our knowledge and opinions.
It was Ned’s shooting of the police officer that killed the story for me. This is the end of Act One turning point – the moment that should propel the story to its inevitable conclusion and make the audience clamour to get back to their seats. It just happened. I have no idea why he was shot. A writer makes story out of plot. That copper could have been about to kill Ned’s brother. Ned could have tried everything to stop him and been forced to shoot. On stage, Ned holds the man he shot and puts him out of his pain, but this heroic moment means nothing if his choice to shoot wasn’t an impossible one. It’s a story-changing scene that should be filled with the type of tension that has the audience hoping against hope that the copper will walk away this time and that Ned won’t end up choking and swinging in Melbourne Gaol.
Writing aside, the first appearance of the Kelly gang in their armour was the moment everyone was waiting for. It should have silenced the room. We’re allowed to see the creation of one of Australia’s most recognisable images. It’s a time to slow down the action and let the audience see it through eyes that have never seen anything like this before. Instead, it’s quick and dull and the armours need some WD40.
Not far from the the theatre is the Bendigo Gallery and the Imaging Ned exhibition. The first thing in the exhibition is Ned Kelly’s armour.
THE armour. The icon. It’s disconcertingly moving to see it with its rust and bullet holes, and I wasn’t the only person who touched its glass case because the urge to touch it is so strong. Maybe comparing that feeling to “WD40 the costume” isn’t fair, but the appearance of that armour on stage should have felt something like that, but big enough to fill a 1000-seat theatre.
The first room at the exhibition is about popular culture with films, books, playing cards, post cards, sheet music and chocolate boxes that told their version of the story. Each reflected the values of the time and the people that re-told it how they wanted to hear it. Ned made me feel like we are still a society that believes a story told on chocolate box lids.
Next is a room with some of the Nolan, and Tucker, series. I heard the Ned designer was influenced by the Nolan paintings. How could you not be! I don’t know what he saw, but it wasn’t the colours, shapes, space or composition of Nolan. I looked at the wallpaper design that Nolan used for the Kelly home, the connection to horses (without Ned‘s “mounting from behind” joke ), the exaggerated black of the armour, the occasional glimpse of a human inside the armour, the connection of human to natural space, the colours of gum tree bark, the creation of myth with the square of black; they are astonishing – and if any of it is referenced on the brown and balanced Ned set, I couldn’t see it.
There are also Kelly images by Chinese, queer, female and Indigenous artists; those voices that are so missing from the great white Kelly narrative.
Everything in this exhibition questions the Kelly narrative and how it’s changed by the communities and people that re-tell it it. It made me feel and made me want to know more and question what I thought I knew. It made me read the Jerilderie Letter on the train home. It did what Ned didn’t.
We forget what we see in shows, we forget details and story and design – but we don’t forget how they made us feel.
Ned is a by-the-discarded-book show that fails to question or place this story anywhere in today’s Australia and it left me feeling nothing.