Six Degrees of Ned Kelly – Sydney Fringe Festival. (Theatre Review)
Six Degrees of Ned Kelly
I grew up in The Sutherland Shire in Sydney Australia, a region (in)famous for being right-wing, socially closed-minded and above all one hundred percent true blue Aussie. I have four brothers (only girl, oldest child) and my mother wasn’t around for a large part of my childhood. My father has a PHD in applied mathematics (Astrophysics) and is deeply religious (protestant Christian) while equally engaged with and enamoured by the arts. Growing up in my house there was a strong emphasis on proof, strength of argument, rationality and a passionate love of aesthetic beauty that resulted in four of his five children entering into the arts. Our response to an environment that refused to nurture this (and in fact is deeply suspicious of it) was a passionate love of all things Western European – an indoctrination I thrive under even to this day. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great reasons to live in The Sutherland Shire. It’s probably one of the most beautiful places on earth, and to this day I have deep and lasting friendships with the people I grew up with there. But me and my family felt distanced from the philosophical ethos of the region and it fostered a reciprocal suspicion of Australian nationalism. We related to very little Australian culture – but one thing that was important to my father and therefore to me and my brothers (we lived on a farm in Sofala as a result of this and spent several of my child hood years in Bathurst) was a passionate love for our Australian bushrangers.
Tales of Ben Hall and Ned Kelly were strangely prevalent as I grew up, and one of my fondest memories is of a family holiday to Beechworth, Glenrowan, Jirilderie and the rest of Kelly Country for a frosty journey into the only aspect of Australian culture my father could comfortably embrace. He even taught us how to shoot a gun and bought his own very expensive Ned Kelly replica, not to mention countless books, images and minor paraphernalia my home was festooned with as I was growing up. I give you all this dull preamble about my life, mostly to show how peculiar it was that this aspect of Australian history should capture a little family that felt so endlessly at odds with the social world around them in a land that felt so strange a distant.
Well, thanks to the gregarious and delightful Melita Rowston, I now know that this passion for Australian bushrangers, particularly Ned Kelly, makes my family very very Australian. A love for these bushrangers is not the isolated phenomena children of my generation include in their strange family histories, rather a shared passion for being one with Ned Kelly.
Melita Rowston has her own Ned Kelly story growing up. Her grandfather always told her he “stole Ned Kelly’s bones” when he was a boy, and it was in the wake of his death, Melita decided to take a mini pilgrimage of love to follow-up on her grandfathers playful narrative. This is the journey she takes her audience on in Six Degrees of Ned Kelly, in what turns out to be a spellbinding hour of unfolding story as Melita walks us through her personal odyssey into her past. It turns out, her past is my past and indeed it is the past of many Australians who insist on claiming a piece of the Ned Kelly story for themselves. Through her trek to find the answers to her own history, Rowston uncovers a previously hidden aspect of Australian culture. It is not in us to worship our bushranger heroes (though there is plenty of that as well) it is in our cultural nature to appropriate them. It is not enough to “be” a proud Aussie connecting to the Ned Kelly story. Australians need to “be” Ned Kelly himself, to a degree.
There is no doubt that the Ned Kelly story is a unique and thrilling one. Bushrangers were anti-establishment, anti-British and anti-colonial, the true rebels of early white settlement. Many myths exist about Ned stealing from the wealthy to give to the poor, but I have no idea if that is accurate, and after seeing Melita Rowston talk about this subject I know it probably isn’t but it definitely doesn’t matter. When Ned donned that home-made armour and faced the constabulary he claimed all of Australia for himself, and drew us to his side in a never-ending claim to be part of his blood and soul. He is a man who became a legend who has become a myth and seeped his way into our veins without our suspecting a thing. Nationalism might have felt strange and foreign to my family, but Ned Kelly didn’t, and little did we know we were celebrating a strange and potent Australian tradition when we followed our hearts and passion to connect with his history.
All this is brought to the fore with alarming and fascinating skill by the very clever Rowston in her short animated address. Her story is poignant and touching as well as revelatory and very funny. Included in her narrative are charming touches that take us back to the day, adding insights into the women of the time and the survival techniques of those for whom the enemy was all around them. She reveals us to ourselves in this charming hour of theatre, and in so doing describes a world that Ned Kelly responded to in a way that resonates with all white Australians. Each of us enters the big wide world, clad in whatever armour makes us feel safer to leave our front door and battle another day in a land that never permits us feel properly at home.