The life of Ned Kelly has rich dramatic material for a musical. The infamous bushranger divides Australia into those who admire him as someone who fought against inequality to the extent that his ‘larrikinism’ has become a part of our cultural identify, and those who scorn him as a thief and a murderer.
There’s so much room to explore the moral ambiguities of this legend and I was excited when Underground Productions, the resident student theatre company at the University of Queensland, announced they would be presenting a new musical of his life. And I laughed hard when I heard it was called Metalhead.
To write and mount a new musical is a feat in itself, and for this I commend everyone involved. One fault, if you will, with theatre in Brisbane, and probably in Australia, is that new work does not get the time and support to develop. Metalhead although great in concept, is one such production that would benefit from more development time. It assumes a lot of background knowledge of the Kelly legend and skips introducing many of the characters, making it difficult to deduce who some of the characters were. For instance, Aaron Sherritt only really became prominent as he was about to rat out the Kelly gang to the police. Consequently, what could have been a really moving solo about his inner turmoil at betraying his friends meant very little to the audience. Moreover, there is no exposition about the context in which they become outlaws. Kelly appears to simply have a personal vendetta against Officer Fitzpatrick (who assaulted Kelly’s sister), which is true, but there is no explanation of the way the Irish were treated by the authorities and of the wider issues Kelly purportedly fought for. This Kelly/Fitzpatrick relationship has the beginnings of an epic Jean Valjean/Javert nemesis which would be fun to see explored in further development.
I would also encourage exploration of moments like Kelly berating another member of the Kelly gang for stealing a watch from an innocent member of the public during the famous Jerilderie bank hold-up. This simple gesture gave Kelly depth, and hinted at his particular brand of morality. In fact, the whole hold-up scene was a lot of fun- hard to resist criminals who break into a box-step while robing a bank. Perhaps the whole show could be a comedy. If not, there needs to be clarification of the moments of drama in the story. For instance, there was no clear mention of what the Kelly Gang was planning for the famous Glenrowan seige, and no mention of the planned train derailment. To my delight, school teacher Thomas Curnow did rate a mention. He is an often forgotten hero, who convinced Kelly to let him leave so he could avert the train derailment. Disappointingly, his role was brief and did not make his heroism clear. Also, the drama of the final shootout at Glenrowan was lost when Kelly was shot once, and then a policeman walked over and clocked him one with the butt of his rifle. In reality, Kelly cut an extraordinary, almost supernatural, figure, withstanding multiple gunshots and continuing to come at police in a torrent of gunfire. Such a theatrically perfect moment could be exploited.
Musically, Metalhead is a little confusing. Composer/librettist Benedict Braxton-Smith chose to use folk ballads as a major genre for the music, and this worked. It evoked a rollicking, free spirited feel that captured Kelly’s Irish heritage and his way of life. However, Officer Fitzpatrick had music that felt metal. The concept of using a different genre of music for different characters is really interesting, but given the costuming, set design and other music which were period appropriate, it felt jarring. Plus, at various surprising points throughout the show there were fender rhodes (a sound effect on keyboards that sounds like chimes. It’s rife in Disney music, and was quite out of place in this musical).
Performances in the show are solid. Louis Peak certainly looks the part of Kelly. The big ensemble numbers were good- well executed harmonies, and plenty of fun, lively choreography. The set and costumes were simple, but effectively conveyed the period. Their colours, mostly muted pinks and greens and dusky oranges, evoked the bush of a McCubbin painting.
Metalhead has potential, and it would benefit from further development. It could go in many different directions, but it is important to settle on a central dramatic question and pick one. At the moment it is nebulous- not quite a drama, not quite a comedy, not quite history, not quite commentary.