THEATRE PREVIEW: Kelly - a tale of Ned's brother, Dan

Steven Rooke  plays Ned Kelly. Picture: Rob Maccoll
Steven Rooke plays Ned Kelly. Picture: Rob Maccoll

WHILE bushranger Ned Kelly was hanged in what is now the Old Melbourne Gaol in November 1880, rumours have continued that his younger brother, Dan, survived a bloody two-day confrontation with police earlier that year.

Dan, aged 19, was killed, according to official records, when officers set fire to the Glenrowan hotel where he and another Kelly gang member were holed up. Two badly burnt and unidentifiable male bodies were found in the blackened ruins, and subsequently buried under the names of the two men.

But there continue to be claims that Dan, though badly injured in the conflict, actually escaped and headed away from Victoria.

Most of the stories have him living well into the 20th century in towns near Brisbane, with an Ipswich man, James Ryan, who died in 1948 after being hit by a train, claiming to be Dan Kelly and telling stories about the Kelly gang at conferences and exhibitions. Other men in southern Queensland made similar claims.

Brisbane playwright Matthew Ryan was intrigued by the stories he heard about the possible survival of Dan Kelly and set to work in 2008 on a play built around his "escape".

The play, Kelly, took four years to write, with Ryan extensively researching the lives of Ned and Dan Kelly.

When Queensland Theatre Company premiered Kelly in Brisbane in September 2012, it was such a hit that the company began looking at touring it.

That tour is now under way, and with 39 venues and 66 performances scheduled in Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales, it is the most extensive tour QTC has undertaken.

The show will be at Cessnock Performing Arts Centre on June 30 and Newcastle's Civic Theatre on July 2.

Kelly is set in Ned Kelly's prison cell the night before his hanging, with a guard telling Ned that a priest has come to see him. But when the man comes in, it is Dan in disguise. Dan is heading to Queensland and wants to make peace with Ned before the brothers are separated forever. The men's conversation is fiery, with accusations flying between them. They also relive important moments in their lives, including confrontations with police and other people; their discussion is tinged with humour and sadness. They play other characters in flashbacks.

Steven Rooke, who played Ned in the 2012 production, reprises the role, with Kevin Spink as Dan and Anthony Standish as the guard. The show is again directed by Todd MacDonald. Like the writer, Rooke and Spink spent much time researching the Kelly brothers after winning the roles. And while on tour they have been amazed by the comments made by audience members they have met after the performances.

The play has just finished its Victorian tour, and a woman at Wodonga, north of Glenrowan, told Rooke and Spink that her great-great-grandmother had nursed Dan back to health before he went to Queensland.

Spink said the woman asserted that Dan used the smoke from the burning hotel as cover when he ran from the building and into the nearby trees. He was badly burnt and took some time to recover. Some patrons vehemently dismissed the suggestion that Dan could have escaped, while others believed it was possible. Rooke said the claims of four Queensland residents that they were Dan Kelly were now being investigated by researchers and officials to try to determine whether one actually was him.

The touring company performed at Glenrowan, allowing its members to see the places mentioned in the story.

The roles of the brothers are challenging. Ned was shot in both legs at Glenrowan, so he walks with difficulty. And, given their family backgrounds, there is an Irish cadence to their words.

Kelly can be seen at Cessnock Performing Arts Centre  on Tuesday, June 30, at 8pm. Tickets: $32 to $40; bookings 49907134. The show is at the Civic Theatre, Newcastle, on Thursday, July 2, at 8pm. Tickets: $38 to $48; bookings 49291977.