If you are Australian, have ever been to Australia, or in fact even ever met an Australian, there is a greater than middling chance that you are well aware of the story of Ned Kelly.
Take the word Australian, replace it with Irish and repeat the last paragraph.
He is the man behind our most (in)famous face, thanks in large part to his unforgettable beard, his low brow and darkly intense glare.
He is also the man behind our most iconic imagery. His homemade suit of armour, forged from 40 odd kilograms of plough blade, which caught the Victorian police completely by surprise, is surely the subject of more tattoos than any other image in Australian history. Not to mention the T Shirts, cigarette lighters, car seat covers and letter boxes. In fact, if you can print on it, you can be assured that someone somewhere has printed Ned Kelly’s image on it.
He was the subject of the world’s first ever feature film and his story has been told countless times in countless ways. Including by me.
Well not me exactly.
I was just a small part of a large team that dared to tell the story yet again, in a new way, on 40 stages around the country. We played large theatres and tin sheds, town halls and basketball courts. Anywhere there was an audience, we put our little show on.
And I haven’t really wanted to act on stage since.
Let me break it down to bite size parcels.
I was exhausted. At the end of the 2015 tour, we had performed 70 shows in 39 towns across the country over 19 weeks. This number does not include the 30 odd shows we did in the original Brisbane season.
Now I realise that doesn’t sound like a whole lot. And in reality it isn’t. It was only 80 minutes onstage after all. But this doesn’t take into account all the other elements that go along with short seasons, (known as ‘one night stands’) with a show like this.
In almost every town we visited, there was a meet and greet with the company, followed by technical rehearsal, followed by the show, followed most nights by an event we were required to attend. Then there were the interviews – live radio, pre-recorded radio for future towns, newspapers (most often with a photo shoot) and on a couple of occasions, local television. Did I mention the workshops?
Part of the deal was that we would conduct acting workshops whenever required, which I was personally told I was never allowed to miss, due to being Ned. Even when I was horrifyingly sick in Albury/Wodonga, where we had our most taxing season at the amazing Hothouse Theatre Company, we were still doing workshops every day.
Then we would pack up and move on to the next town.
Now there’s this weird rule about the quality of accommodation afforded to performers on these tours. If you are staying somewhere for more than 4 nights, it needs to be three and a half stars, but shorter stay than that and quality is of no importance. And because we rarely did more than a couple of nights in each town, across the board our accommodation was atrocious. Motor inns with no access to even the most basic facilities (toaster, kettle anyone?) let alone a comfy mattress or a lumpless pillow.
Go to bed tired, wake up more tired. Drink coffee. Push on.
And then there were the fans.
I didn’t claim to be an expert, and still don’t, but that wasn’t good enough for the legion of Kelly supporters I came across – each testing my knowledge and smirking at my ignorance on the name of Joe’s mother’s horse’s name or some such inane nonsense that made absolutely zero difference to what I was there to do – just fucking act.
It was because of all of this that I lost it in Bathurst. Proper, juvenile tantrum. I was a dick to my crew and refused to be an adult. It wasn’t that they had done anything wrong. I was just sick of seeing my own low-browed scowling stare on posters all over every town.
And there’s another thing.
I don’t think I’ll ever be better.
The truth of it is that Matthew Ryan wrote an incomparably charming, funny, dangerous and violent rendition of Ned and director Todd Kelly and fellow performers Leon Cain, Kevin Spink, Hugh Parker and Anthony Standish allowed me the playing scope to craft the finest character I will probably ever play.
But I’m okay with that. Because I am endlessly grateful for the time I spent under the skin of the man who epitomises the Aussie character, who balked at authority and left a legacy that defines a country.
And a man who taught me, almost by osmosis, to stand up for what I believe in, to speak out against wrongs and to define a sense of self based entirely on my own expectations of me. Screw what anyone else thinks.
Now as I stare down the possibility of never stepping on stage again, I miss him. I wish even more people had met our version of him. I wish I could have worn that beard for years. With well planned rest breaks in there somewhere of course.