There’s an old legend that Ned Kelly’s younger brother, Dan, escaped the fatal shoot-out at Glenrowan and made his way to Queensland, where he died in either 1943, 1948 or 1953, depending on which of the claimants to the name you believe.

It’s a take on the story of the famous outlaw/murderer/folk hero that hasn’t been explored in dramatic form before, as far as I’m aware, and multi-award winning playwright Matthew Ryan (think The Harbinger, boy girl wall and Attack of the Attacking Attackers) has made an impressive piece of theatre out of it for the Queensland Theatre Company.

Scene: Ned’s cell the night before his hanging. Characters: the crippled manacled outlaw himself (Steven Rooke), an unsympathetic guard who taunts him with details of his fate (Hugh Parker); and a priest who has seemingly come to hear Ned’s confession and give him the last rites, good Roman Catholic boy that he is (Leon Cain). Twist: the priest turns out to be Dan Kelly, Ned’s younger brother in disguise, who wants forgiveness from his older brother for his own cowardly part in the final confrontation with the police.

Can one believe it? The story itself is full of holes, but it’s no more fanciful than any other element in this iconic piece of Australian folklore, and as the Kelly Gang has already become part of Australia’s mythical history, it doesn’t really matter. The play’s the thing, as always, and this play is very much the thing, an impressive drama that works through not the truth or otherwise of this story, but those more basic conflicts between guilt and innocence, evil and goodness, sibling rivalry, and courage in the face of adversity.

No sides are taken in this retelling, and in one way it’s like a question raised in Situation Ethics 101 — do we judge Ned and Dan by their own values, the values of the day, or ultimate values, if there are such things? Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his boots, as the old saying goes, and here, at the final confrontation, this is what the brothers (and we as audience) have to do.

It’s a powerful piece of theatre, and at 90 minutes just long enough to raise the questions but not supply any answers. All night long Ned taunts Dan with his cowardice, and raises another long-held rumour, that of Dan’s homosexual love for Steve Hart, the fourth member of the gang. All the big issues like suicide, betrayal and forgiveness are played with in the rough way that you’d expect from blokes like these, and the final irony is that when Ned goes off to be hanged and Dan shrieks out his own confession, nobody believes him. So Dan becomes Cain, condemned to wander the world with the mark of fratricide upon him and to fade away into nothingness. Ned is hanged, but his legend lives on — Dan survives, but his memory fades and he becomes just a sword-bearer in the greater drama.

The three actors play off each other in a myriad of ways, giving contrast and variety to what could have been a tedious two-hander. It’s not just the excellence of Cain and Rooke as the two brothers twisting and turning their stories, but the constant interruption of Parker as the guard, who doubles and triples as characters in the back story.

Sensitively directed, subtly lit and economically designed, Kelly will go down in history as one of the better re-tellings of this great legend.

The details: Kelly plays the Cremorne Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre until October 20. Tickets on the venue website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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