I’ve been planning to write a Ned Kelly play for a long time now, but outside of that I haven’t had much in the way of a concept. It’s one of those cases where my interest has come more from a place of passion for the story than from having anything to actually say about it.
Obviously this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve tackled a real life subject. Arguably my three most well received plays were We Can Work It Out, Springsteen and Moonlite, all stories rooted in fact. All three had amazing ticket sales and excellent reviews, and remain the three plays that regularly get put forward for a potential second run (stay tuned on the WCWIO and Moonlite fronts). But for my money there is another, more important reason that those shows hit the chords they did.
A couple of years ago I had a first run at writing a Ned Kelly play, and even finished a script. Called Glenrowan, it took place during Ned’s last stand and focused on the peripheral characters pulled into his orbit. In theory the play was about examining the moment when real events become legend. On paper, it didn’t really work that way. It essentially amounted to a lot of characters standing around debating with little plot momentum and not much that differentiated it from the many, many other retellings of Ned Kelly’s life. That script never saw the light of day or got further development because, in short, it sucked.
Some of its DNA did end up resurfacing in Moonlite, but far more effectively. Moonlite also used the last stand of a real bushranger as a way to examine the importance of reality when a legend has taken its place, but it was far more thematically cohesive, had actual plot/character progression, and was loaded with humour and toe-tapping tunes to keep it fun.
See the reason Moonlite worked, to me, is that it actually had something to say. It didn’t exist purely to relay a story that the key creatives were passionate about.
Likewise Springsteen and We Can Work It Out; riskier propositions in that they told the stories of people who are still alive and active today. But both plays used a foundation of fandom and reality to explore something deeper. We Can Work It Out was about the purpose of art, Springsteen was about learning to let go of ambition and recognise what really matters. Because while we might love the stories of real people, whether historical or contemporary, I really do believe that relaying them creatively without any deeper themes will always be a hollow enterprise.
Yesterday the brilliant guys at A Guide to Australian Bushranging published a long and well worth reading article about the upcoming True History of the Kelly Gang film. The article, while stressing that they were remaining open minded, was critical of many aspects of the film’s production, from casting to the professed interests of the key creatives to the fact that the novel the film is based on was not historically accurate and as such the film wouldn’t be either. And with cinema being unable to capture the voice that made the novel feel authentic, what was to differentiate this retelling from all the others?
Maybe a childish excitement for all things bushranger wins out here, but I’m not too concerned about historical accuracy. The first responsibility of a film is to engage and entertain and that is very hard to do if you’re adhering 100% to the letter of history. Real life, after all, scarcely fits comfortably into a three-act structure. My argument, then, is that I don’t really care if a film isn’t accurate, as long as it’s true to the spirit of the story and uses the changes it makes to enhance its central thesis/interpretation. I love the 2003 Heath Ledger Ned Kelly because as a kid it was practically a dream adaptation of a story that captured my imagination; sweeping, rousing, epic and passionate at the expense of accuracy. The Ledger film makes a lot of changes, some more egregious than others, and I can’t really begrudge anyone being unable to see past that, although I do think that in general people need to be a little more open minded to making changes to fact for the sake of entertaining fiction. After all, if you do your job well, people will likely go off and research the real story anyway. A good adaptation can introduce many more people to the facts and besides, I can’t see anybody walking out of any Hollywood interpretation of real events assuming that’s exactly how it happened (see: The Greatest Showman). The idea that an unfaithful retelling inherently propagates harmful untruths is, I feel, disrespectful to filmgoers.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that yesterday I did finally make a start on my own Ned Kelly play. The article I read got me thinking, and finally the disparate ideas I’d been entertaining for years came together in a take on the story that a) has a clear thematic thesis and b) has not been done before, at least to my knowledge.
The take is simple; what if Ned Kelly knew exactly what he was doing? What if Glenrowan was a planned attempt to martyr himself and his gang based on the fact that they could have more impact as dead legends than living criminals? Now what if his gang were not aware of this and one of them was to find out halfway through the siege? How would you feel to know that somebody you trusted and looked up to as a leader and protector was in fact planning to sacrifice you in service of a larger goal?
I am keenly aware that this has the potential to piss off just about anyone with a vested interest in the story. The “Ned Kelly was a murdering criminal” camp won’t like seeing him sacrificing all for what he perceives as a noble cause, the “Ned Kelly was a hero” camp won’t like this depiction of him as a ruthless manipulator and those who prize accuracy will balk at some of my reinterpretations of what went on inside the inn.
My pre-emptive defence is this; the story has been told hundreds of time and can survive a few alternate takes. Additionally I’m not for a second trying to suggest that this is anything other than fiction. It’s using the framework of a real story to pick up where Moonlite left off and continue exploring the themes of how legends are created and what their significance is compared to the real events that spawned them. Only this time, unlike Moonlite, the story will be about a legend deliberately created, exploring the use of stories and iconography as weapons at the expense of facts. So if anything, the wilful inaccuracy of the play kind of suits the theme.
So far I’m really excited by what I’ve written. It’s a theme that fascinates me and a story I love, which sort of doubles the thrill of finally writing my own version of this story. And if nothing else, I’m proud of the fact that I finally found an angle on this legend that, to me, is fresh and new.
Writing words about writing words.