Such are mu­si­cals Ned Kelly and the arts boom in re­gional Vic­to­ria

Bendigo is hop­ing its shiny new theatre and an orig­i­nal new mu­si­cal will help trans­form it into the try­out town for Aus­tralian work,

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - writes Sharon Verghis

It’s a late au­tumn’s af­ter­noon in Mel­bourne, and young ac­tor Nel­son Gard­ner, squint­ing down the bar­rels of a ri­fle, is stalk­ing dramatically around the vast in­te­rior of Kens­ing­ton Town Hall. Nearby, fel­low ac­tors Robert Tripolino and Brent Trot­ter swap teary vows of male fel­low­ship over a bot­tle of whisky. “Dan, I would die for you. I would take a bul­let for you.” “And I you.” It’s the third week of re­hearsals for Ned, a new mu­si­cal based on the story of Ned Kelly, Australia’s favourite out­law, and it is hip­ster beards and prop guns at 50 paces as four young men led by Bendigo-reared ac­tor Gard­ner play out a cru­cial scene.

At one end of a long ta­ble clut­tered with lap­tops, mu­sic scores and props sits the cre­ator of Ned, Adam Lyon, a big, bar­rel-chested study in con­cen­tra­tion as two of the ac­tors sing White Dove, a soft lament he penned. Lyon’s wife and the mu­si­cal’s book writer, Anna, makes no­ta­tions on the script while mu­sic direc­tor Lo­clan Mackenzie-Spencer, hands mov­ing in dreamy waves, stud­ies the score. Direc­tor Gary Young watches from the side, cal­i­brat­ing ev­ery­thing from a death by gun­shot to emo­tional re­ac­tions: a bit more grav­i­tas there, he calls, as slabs of angst and in­ti­macy and sud­den vi­o­lence are roughly plot­ted and staged.

There’s a good-hu­moured tus­sle over a cre­ative prob­lem: should there be si­lence when a traitor is killed or do you keep singing? Is­sues of au­then­tic­ity are brought up: “Boys, just be gun savvy,” Young cau­tions. “Make sure the bar­rel is not point­ing at your foot or each other … there are lots of things you learn in the coun­try about han­dling guns. It just be­comes au­to­matic.”

Guns, it turns out, have al­ready caused a spot of bother for this fledg­ling pro­duc­tion: red faces abounded at a me­dia shoot in Mel­bourne re­cently when an alarmed passer-by called the po­lice af­ter spot­ting Gard­ner and his gang pos­ing with their prop ri­fles. “Then, do you re­mem­ber the day in re­hearsal when Con­nor (Craw­ford, an­other cast mem­ber) broke his gun?” Young calls out be­fore mut­ter­ing, with a sly smile, that “it’s all about the guns” as Gard­ner takes moody pot shots at in­vis­i­ble tar­gets.

A grad­u­ate of the Vic­to­rian Col­lege of the Arts, Gard­ner, 27, a for­mer singing stu­dent of Lyon who will take on his first lead role in this pro­duc­tion af­ter roles in Chess and The Pro­duc­ers, isn’t wear­ing his spe­cially built, 40kg ar­mour to­day.

Who makes ar­mour th­ese days? A crafts­man in cen­tral Vic­to­ria, re­veals Anne Hen­shall, mar­ket­ing manager of Cap­i­tal Venues and Events, a unit of Bendigo Coun­cil. The ge­nial Hen­shall is here to watch the craft­ing of Ned, which will open in Bendigo’s $26 mil­lion, 1000-seat Ulum­barra Theatre this month. Com­mis­sioned by the coun­cil and writ­ten by lo­cal boy Lyon, who starred as Carl Den­ham in the stage mu­si­cal King Kong, the show, with 10 Bendigo ac­tors among the 26-strong cast, will run for six per­for­mances at the theatre, which opened to much fan­fare last month on the site of the his­toric Sand­hurst Gaol.

A lot is at stake: Bendigo Coun­cil, in its first at­tempt at pro­duc­ing a mu­si­cal, has in­vested $400,000 in this ven­ture. Ned and Ulum­barra are key planks in the coun­cil’s push to get Bendigo on the map as a per­form­ing arts player: if Lyon’s out­law mu­si­cal works, there are am­bi­tious plans to make this 115,000-strong city — al­ready on the radar as a lively cul­tural hub and home to one of re­gional Australia’s most inno- va­tive art gal­leries — the new cen­tre for out-oftown try­outs of mu­si­cals and other Aus­tralian work. If all goes well, the en­ter­pris­ing Lyon, 33, has a sec­ond mu­si­cal ready to go.

As she watches re­hearsals, Hen­shall says can­didly there are nerves aplenty. “But while we know we could lose money, we won’t lose the house,” she says: tick­ets are sell­ing well on the back of surg­ing lo­cal pride in the home­grown Ned (a tie-in ex­hi­bi­tion, Imag­in­ing Ned, at the Bendigo Art Gallery has at­tracted 25,000 vis­i­tors since it opened in March). It also has snared the at­ten­tion of many out­side Bendigo: “We had a woman from Queens­land ring up and say they were so ex­cited to come see it; she said her hus­band had writ­ten a mu­si­cal with 32 songs in it, and they couldn’t be­lieve some­one had got­ten be­hind a lo­cal mu­si­cal.” She smiles. “You hear sto­ries like that, and it’s so won­der­ful.”

Over lunch at a nearby cafe, Lyon, a bear of a man with a beau­ti­ful lilt to his bari­tone (he com­pleted a bach­e­lor of mu­sic, opera, at VCA), is equal parts en­thu­si­asm and sweaty trep­i­da­tion as he re­counts his four-year jour­ney to get Ned to the stage. Born and reared in a work­ing-class neigh­bour­hood in Bendigo by his opera-lov­ing grand­mother (he jok­ingly de­scribes him­self as a “bo­gan” with only one fancy suit to his name), he joined the VCA at the rel­a­tively ad­vanced age of 27 to study opera. In late 2010, tin­ker­ing with some mu­sic, he had an idea for a song of an Ir­ish fa­ther singing to his son. This sowed the seeds for a big­ger idea: writ­ing a “big, epic” mu­si­cal based on Ned Kelly and his fam­ily.

Lyon com­posed more songs while his wife Anna, a Bendigo pae­di­a­tri­cian, be­gan work on the book with writer Marc McIn­tyre. But then King Kong came along and the project went into hia­tus. Post- King Kong, Lyon re­vived it with an eye to launch­ing it in con­junc­tion with the open­ing of Ulum­barra Theatre. He ap­proached Bendigo Coun­cil’s David Lloyd, manager of Cap­i­tal Venues and Events, and “voiced the idea of mak­ing Bendigo an in­cu­ba­tion hub for new Aus­tralian works and David said he’d been think­ing the same thing. It was a dis­gust­ingly easy sell. I went to a whole bunch of meet­ings in my fancy suit, my only suit, which Gerry Ryan [chair­man of Global Crea­tures] bought for me for King Kong’s open­ing”.

For the neo­phyte Lyon, the whole process of stag­ing a mu­si­cal — from cast­ing to ne­go­ti­at­ing con­tracts — has been “ex­cit­ing but in­sanely chal­leng­ing”. Fiercely loyal to his own work­ing­class roots, he be­lieves the story of Kelly, the quin­tes­sen­tial out­sider, re­tains a grip on con­tem­po­rary Australia’s imag­i­na­tion be­cause it speaks of old val­ues that seem al­most anachro­nis­tic to­day: mate­ship, pride in your bat­tler roots, tribal sol­i­dar­ity. His score — lush, orches­tral, in­flected with Ir­ish rhythms but with a dis­cernibly Aus­tralian sound — re­flects a big, full­blooded stag­ing fo­cus­ing on the women and com­plex fam­ily dy­nam­ics in Kelly’s life.

Gard­ner, for his part, says he has en­joyed ex­plor­ing the moral am­bi­gu­i­ties of Kelly’s story — “the vil­lain in the hero, the hero in the vil­lain”— while Anna Lyon says she has fil­tered Kelly’s story through the prism of child psy­chol­ogy, drawing on her ex­pe­ri­ences in her Bendigo med­i­cal prac­tice. There, she sees many “lit­tle Ned Kellys”: chil­dren of de­pri­va­tion and bro­ken homes who, like Kelly, will most likely grow up to make the wrong choices and suf­fer the con­se­quences. For Karen Quin­lan, direc­tor of Bendigo Art Gallery, there are som­bre res­o­nances aplenty in light of the re­cent ex­e­cu­tions of Bali Nine ring­leaders Myu­ran Suku­maran and An­drew Chan; view­ing a death mask made of Kelly on show as part of the Imag­in­ing Ned ex­hi­bi­tion, she says that, like the doomed pair, Kelly, who was hanged at 25, “was way too young to die”.

As he watches his work be­ing built, Adam Lyon pays trib­ute to Bendigo Coun­cil for its faith and open wal­lets in back­ing that most per­ilous ven­ture, a new Aus­tralian mu­si­cal. Flops rather than tri­umphs have been the rule in this sphere, from Jon English’s Paris to Reg

Liver­more’s own Ned Kelly, which de­buted in Ade­laide in 1978: “It’s an ex­pen­sive and com­plex busi­ness writ­ing a mu­si­cal ... to have a cast of 26 and 20 in­stru­ments is un­heard of,” Lyon says. Vet­eran direc­tor Gary Young ( Sideshow Al­ley) says he isn’t daunted by the risks be­cause “what

Ned brings is a theatre that it can go into. And to have that kind of grunt be­hind it is a rare thing. This is an op­por­tu­nity to try to do some­thing sub­stan­tial with this piece and give it a spring­board to the world even­tu­ally, and cer­tainly to the rest of Australia.

“Where it goes from there, who knows? But what it has pro­vided us is a place where we can close our eyes and take a big long run along the div­ing board and take the plunge. Let’s see if we can come up for air. It’s a bit of a unique sit­u­a­tion be­cause rarely do you get that kind of sup­port. Com­mer­cial pro­duc­ers are busi­ness­men, they look to over­seas prod­ucts.” In Bendigo’s Ulum­barra Theatre, a 90-minute drive from Mel­bourne, Lloyd ad­mits to sleep­less nights as he con­tem­plates the coun­cil’s hefty in­vest­ment in Ned. “It’s in­cred­i­bly coura­geous for a re­gional city to mount a ma­jor Aus­tralian mu­si­cal,” he says but, to him, the op­por­tu­nity to show­case lo­cal tal­ent and tell an Aus­tralian story that has roots in this re­gion was too good to pass up. If Ned works, he be­lieves oth­ers will come: “It’s big, it’s risky and it’s keep­ing me awake at night. But one thing that [I’ve said in the past] is that to have per­form­ing arts in Bendigo put on the map na­tion­ally, you do that by cre­at­ing some­thing here in Bendigo, and ex­port­ing it to the rest of Australia.”

It has been a big time for the cen­tral Vic­to­rian town with the open­ing of the theatre last month (Ulum­barra means “meet­ing place” in the lo­cal Dja Dja Wur­rung di­alect). Built as part of a re­de­vel­op­ment of her­itage-listed Sand­hurst Gaol, which opened in 1863, Lloyd says it has al­ready at­tracted 20,000 vis­i­tors and 170 bookings for the year. When Re­view vis­its, the theatre, a sculp­tural ed­i­fice of glass and ex­posed brick ris­ing out of the old gran­ite bones of the for­mer jail, is packed with tour groups and school­child­ren from the ad­join­ing 1800-strong Bendigo Se­nior Sec­ondary Col­lege. Lloyd says the city now has the fa­cil­i­ties to host big live acts that pre­vi­ously by­passed the town. As for tri­alling new shows, “peo­ple are al­ready talk­ing to us … there’s a lot of in­ter­est in this model be­cause the eco­nomics of do­ing some­thing in a re­gional con­text is much eas­ier than in Mel­bourne or Syd­ney.” A mu­si­cal theatre ob­server notes that Bendigo’s burghers may be on to some­thing: Cameron Mack­in­tosh re­port­edly said last year he was ham­pered by a lack of 1000-seat the­atres out­side the coun­try’s cap­i­tal cities.

Over lunch in the city’s com­pact arts precinct cen­tred along View Street, a pleas­ant thor­ough­fare lined with plane trees and flut­ter­ing red ban­ners for Ned, Stan Li­a­cos, direc­tor of City Fu­tures for the City of Greater Bendigo, says Ned and Ulum­barra are a vi­tal part of the next chap­ter in the story of Bendigo’s trans­for­ma­tion from sleepy for­mer gold­min­ing town to one of re­gional Australia’s liveli­est cul­tural hubs. In re­cent years, the town’s cul­tural ecol­ogy has thrived hand in hand with a grow­ing white-col­lar jobs base. Un­der the savvy Quin­lan, Bendigo Art Gallery vis­i­tor fig­ures have soared from 17,000 to more than 200,000 an­nu­ally, built on the back of in­ter­na­tional block­buster shows such as 2012’s Grace Kelly: A Style

Icon ex­hi­bi­tion. (Last year, the gallery ex­panded its ca­pac­ity with a $8.4m ren­o­va­tion.) The Bendigo Writ­ers Fes­ti­val is in its fourth year, while the founder of the Bendigo In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val of Ex­ploratory Mu­sic, com­poser David Chisholm, has plans to es­tab­lish a lo­cal en­sem­ble and po­ten­tially tour in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Now, says Li­a­cos, Ned, Ulum­barra and a “great thirst for the arts” in the re­gion (par­tic­i­pants in ma­jor events in Bendigo in 2013-14 pro- vided an eco­nomic in­jec­tion of al­most $19m, ac­cord­ing to City of Greater Bendigo data) will al­low the coun­cil to push for­ward with plans po­ten­tially to pro­duce and ex­port home­grown work, be­come a per­form­ing arts ed­u­ca­tion hub for stu­dents across the re­gion, and lure bluechip shows to town. “For 20 years this city has been dreaming about build­ing a 1000-seat theatre and we’ve fi­nally done it,” Li­a­cos says. “The scale of what we can do now lifts the bar for re­gional Australia. For a city of 115,000, it’s an amaz­ing achieve­ment.”

As for Ned, he is bullish. “It takes courage to do­ing some­thing like this — and if it doesn’t work, that’s OK, we can back it up with other things. But the sig­nals are very pos­i­tive.” It prompts a smile from a grat­i­fied Lloyd, who says: “The city has al­lowed us to have that courage.” Li­a­cos grins: “But ask him what will hap­pen if Ned doesn’t work. See where those gal­lows used to be over there?” — he points to a wrought-iron gantry over Ulum­barra’s box of­fice, used to hang three pris­on­ers be­fore 1897. “There might be a cou­ple more.”

As for Lyon, he has his fin­gers crossed. His dream? To cre­ate more mu­si­cals, pro­vid­ing work — and hope — for lo­cal ac­tors, di­rec­tors and pro­duc­ers.

“I tend to dream quite large,” he says. “That’s what I do.”

IT’S IN­CRED­I­BLY COURA­GEOUS FOR A RE­GIONAL CITY TO MOUNT A MA­JOR AUS­TRALIAN MU­SI­CAL

DAVID LLOYD

Ned opens at Bendigo’s Ulum­barra Theatre on Fri­day. Sharon Verghis trav­elled to Vic­to­ria as a guest of the City of Greater Bendigo.

Nel­son Gard­ner, far left, who stars as the leg­endary bushranger in Ned; com­poser Adam Lyon, left, in the old jail, now home to Bendigo’s new 1000-seat Ulum­barra Theatre, above

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