Q&A with Matthew Ryan
Q 1. What inspired you to write Kelly?
I spent some years as a kid living in Shepparton, which is right in Kelly Country. I was amazed even then at how much Ned Kelly had permeated the history of that area. Ned has haunted me ever since. I think it was the images. They were some of the most violent pictures a young kid would come across. The grotesque newspaper illustration of the shooting of Aaron Sherritt. The bizarre photo of Joe Byrne’s dead body, strung up in a standing position. And of course, a towering figure wearing a suit of armour and shooting guns makes quite an impression on a kid.
A few years ago I came up with a good idea of a confrontation between the Mayne brothers James and Isaac (from The Mayne Inheritance) in a jail cell. But La Boite had just done a production of that story so there was nothing I could do with it. And then the Kelly brothers waltzed on in. It was an amazing moment. They immediately took over my brain and started arguing with each over whose fault it all was. All this imagery that was burned into my brain as a kid was venting out in these voices. I had to write it down just to stay sane.
Q 2. You’ve done a lot of research for Kelly. How much truth is in your final script? Do you believe Dan Kelly really escaped the siege at Glenrowan to then live as a travelling refuge in places like SE Queensland…?
Almost all of the facts in the script surrounding Ned Kelly are as true as possible. But the real history is a bit murky anyway. Keep in mind Ned was a notorious liar, mainly because most of what we have him on record as saying he was saying to the police – whom he had no qualms in lying to. And the police at that time would often lie to make themselves look better so no one really knows for sure. My goal with Ned is simply to capture the spirit of the man. To make audiences feel they’re really in the room with him. I don’t think anyone’s successfully done that yet.
The real Dan Kelly is something of a mysterious figure and there isn’t a lot of information about him in the history books. He tends to pop up in the confrontations, completely fail to do what is asked of him and Ned then has fix things. I used this idea as a building block to create the fictional character but took a lot more artistic license with him than Ned. Dan carries more of the folklore side of the story.
Do I think Dan escaped? I think it’s a fifty-fifty call. There are eye-witnesses that say he died. And there are eye-witnesses that saw Dan in the weeks after Glenrowan, heading for Queensland. There’s a grave with an unrecognizable body in it in Greta. And there are reports of a man named James Ryan out at Ipswich who claimed to be Dan and told stories about The Kelly Gang that no one else should know. I like the uncertainty of it all. It’s ripe geography for fiction.
Q 3. How long did Kelly take to conceptualize and write?
It took three years to get the Yes. I started writing the first draft in July 2008. It grew over the years and had a whole lot of flashbacks to other times and places with other characters. I got some good advice from a few different sources that the play works better when it’s confined to the jail cell so I got rid of the other locations and found a trick to have those flashbacks play out in the one room.
Q 4. How would you describe your style of writing?
I’m mostly known for my comedy so I think this one is going to be a shock for some people. My work tends to be very story driven. I’m very structured. I’m much more interested in the action of a piece and what’s happening between the characters than I am in any grand political explorations. I tend to just let that stuff bubble up gently.
Q 5. Some background on you…
I was born in Brisbane. I lived in rural Victoria for a few years and then spent my teenage years growing up on the Gold Coast before coming back to Brisbane when I went to the University of Queensland. So I’ve had a very wide vista of the Australian experience. I studied Drama/English at UQ with the intention of becoming a teacher. Then I wrote my first play at university (with Tony Brockman) and have been obsessed with it ever since. Kelly will be my seventh mainstage production in the last seven years which is a pretty good run.
I’m always in the mood to write. The hardest thing for me is stopping. The trick is to get in the right mood for the particular piece you’re working on. For me it’s always music. I can’t write without music playing. Usually original scores for films. For Kelly it was The Assassination of Jesse James, There Will Be Blood, and The Proposition. But every day I’d start by shutting my eyes and listening to Gustavo Santaolalla’s Iguazu. It’s an incredible piece of music and I would instantly be transported into the world of the play.
The banter between Ned and Dan is based on Irish rhythms of conversation. Their parents were Irish immigrants and while there is some debate as to whether Ned himself had an Irish accent, I really wanted to capture that amazing lyrical quality of the speech patterns – if not in the actual words then at least in the pacing and timing. It seems to be in my own blood because once they started talking in that rhythm I couldn’t shut them up.