A Theatre Review by Frances Devlin-Glass
Felix Meagher (writer, composer and performer) with additional music by Cyril Moran and Lou Hesterman: Barry Versus Kelly, A Bushwahzee Production, at Celtic at Metro, 31 August 2019
This is an unabashedly and unashamedly partisan show, which tells a familiar story in quirky ways that are always entertaining. If you belonged to the policemen’s descendants, or the Judge’s, you’d probably be quite annoyed, though there is never any malice in the representation of Barry himself. He is puzzled over and enjoyed for his contradictions, but more of that anon.
The show dramatises the last days of Ned Kelly, his trial and execution, but it is not at all burdened by history. As suggested above, it retails the popular account of Ned as inheritor of the tradition of 1798 and the doomed 1803 rebellion of Robert Emmet. The angle of vision in the play is always Ned (played dashingly by Anthony Penhall) – young, handsome, cocky, crazy brave and resolute. Unlike his mother Ellen (Cora Browne) and sister Maggie (Lucinda Barrett), he had no trouble reading the dire signs of Redmond Barry’s revenge plot against Fenians and his class warfare.
Ned’s foil, Sir Redmond Barry, was played by Felix Meagher (the author/composer of the play). Both Barry’s public figure (Supreme Court Judge, founding Chancellor of Melbourne University and of the Public Library and Museum, where he filled the shelves with his own hands, etcetera, etcetera) and, more engagingly, the semi-private dandy are on offer in this play. Louche, lax and lascivious, his career as an habitué of the Melbourne Club gave him access to influencers (in modern parlance) as well as dancing girls. One of these, the model for the controversial painting, Chloe (after a dalliance with the purity-snoopers, Chloe is now safely housed in her airbrushed splendour at Young and Jacksons, corner of Flinders and Swanston), performs a balletic sequence for his delectation. Even more scandalously, he kept a mistress, an already married woman, Louisa Barrow, with whom he fathered four children, and built a city house for her in Brunswick. She was kept sedulously under wraps, but in this play has a voice and is critical of his judgments, especially about Ned. It was clever to double Ellen and Louisa, roles that Cora Browne relished and dished up brilliantly. She has a huge operatic voice, and does a fine line as an actor as well. She’s warm, subtle in her use of body and gesture, and won many hearts as the unfortunate Ellen and as Barry’s cheeky, demanding mistress.
Ned and Ellen are represented, as they often are in spinoffs of the Ned story, as a symbiotic unit. Ned’s father, John Kelly, a sad emigré, taught Ned his politics, and perhaps a certain degree of fatalism, as he was a disappointed man who failed to find justice in either hemisphere, but it is Ned’s application of his father’s wisdom in defence of his indigent mother (whom he believed was unjustly victimised by police) that increases the tension between police and renegade band. The most touching moments in the play are duets between mother and son, as she in turn becomes his best advocate.
A cast of six, plus two musicians, occupied a minute stage alongside a well-dressed two-level set, and they made the Club rock. The upper level was dominated by a huge and gloriously golden photo of the Old Melbourne Jail and often gave the illusion that one might be right there. The proportions of the large-scale photograph, suspended like a banner, seemed very apt. An unintended extra benefit was that they were mirrored in the windows and paintings in the Club. Barry Versus Kelly premiered at the Old Melbourne Jail, the site of Ned’s hanging, which must have given the play a real frisson.
The tone of informality was set early in the easy chat with audience, and the roots of this vernacular theatre were made manifest in the music that so often lifted the action and touched the heart. One imagines that this play could sit happily anywhere – in a pub, a hall, or in a grand parlour (the ambience of the interim Celtic Club). The music itself is curiously various: it owes much to the bush music of Bushwahzee, but also made great use of ‘In the Sweet Bye and Bye’, in the black (‘negro spiritual’) jazz tradition, but also seemed to me to nod at Gilbert & Sullivan, especially in its proliferating rhymes and jauntiness. It was really worth hearing every word of these mainly original songs, and to that outcome, the intimacy and good acoustics of the Celtic Club dining room really helped.
The set comprised a handsome set of wood-panelled dock and a larger upper platform, also capable of being used as a dock. It promised a courtroom scene, but ingeniously Felix Meagher replaced it with a dream-vision of a duel between Barry and Ned. This recapitulates an earlier duel between Barry and Snodgrass in which Barry acted magnanimously (he could be generous!), and it also suggests his failing health and increasing reliance on morphine. It enabled words to be exchanged between the two main protagonists with blunderbuss emphasis.
Ned is, of course, the gift that keeps on giving. There wouldn’t be a year goes by when there isn’t some development of the Ned myth and some addition to the historical record, whether it’s the finding of his skull, or revelations about where he was buried, or a revision of the reputation of the police involved in the narrative. It’s a divisive tale, not unlike the 1975 Dismissal. Curiously, both Ned’s hanging and the dismissal occurred on 11 November: the uncanny raises its head again. It wouldn’t do to be superstitious. There’s a deep seam of superstition that this play mines: the Barry curse, that ‘a man with burning eyes will be your demise’ (Ned’s eyes, apparently, became angry when passionate as a result of a medical condition), and Ned’s counter-curse, that he expected to meet him where he was going. By coincidence, or perhaps as a result of the curse, Judge Barry died 12 days after Ned was hanged. Whether they were destined for hell or heaven was never explained.
So, although the subject-matter of this play is grim, the treatment certainly isn’t. The image of a man of serious intent with a conviction of the rightness of his cause will remain with you, but you’ll also relish the irreverent portrait of a pillar of society with an unfortunate lust to exterminate Fenians, but who was nonetheless complex and troubled by the decision. Barry Versus Kelly is an experience one shouldn’t miss when the play comes around the next time. It’s a perennial and its sense of fun is infectious.