Kate Kelly’s story at La Mama Courthouse

Kate Kelly’s story at La Mama Courthouse
Carol Saffer

Gestation of Awgie Award-nominated playwright Rosemary Johns’ Fire in the Head began in 2005.

Delivery of her momentous work about Kate Kelly, Ned Kelly’s sister, is scheduled for March 2022 at La Mama Courthouse.

While Ned Kelly’s role in Australian history is well known and illustrated in various forms, such as a movie starring Mick Jagger and paintings by Sydney Nolan, Kate Kelly’s untold tragic and heroic story is the subject of Ms John’s play.

Conception occurred in 2005 when Ms Johns and two other women playwrights were commissioned to create Quilting the Amour, a story about matriarch Ellen Kelly and her two daughters Maggie and Kelly.

“We didn’t intentionally plan to adopt one each of the Kelly women to focus on, but that’s how it turned out,” Ms Johns said.


I chose Kate, and as a writer, sometimes characters stay with you as if they haven’t completed their journey.


Kate has haunted Ms Johns over the years.

In 2007 she heard about an auction of a gun considered too be that of Constable Fitzpatrick, found in the house where Kate Kelly lived and died in Forbes in NSW.

“Kate came back to me when I learned of this,” Ms Johns said.

Coincidently Ms Johns discovered a renowned academic researcher in Forbes had written about Kate’s husband charged with abusive language. That was quite an unusual charge before the court in the 1890s. The researcher noted he paid a fine, left town shortly after, and came back the night before she died.

The circumstances of Kate’s death by drowning in a lagoon was never resolved. Was it accidental, an act of suicide, or was another person [her husband] involved?

The third trimester began in 2014 when Ms Johns visited County Antrim in Ireland. “Walking those streets, everything started to flood in, and I realised I had not finished this story [about Kate],” she said.

“I had to write it and started composing it in my head as I walked.”

Kate was a significant part of Ned’s life. She walked the Melbourne streets at 17 years of age, gathering 30,000 signatures for a petition to the Governor to stop the hanging of her brother.

“It is remarkable what this woman did and survived,” Ms Johns said. “She was sexually assaulted by Constable Fitzpatrick, aged 14 in 1878.”

“She was abused by her husband during the 1890s and died in 1898.”

“Domestic violence is in her emotional memory, recall and imagining.”

“[The play] is not documentary, and it allows the audience to enter into these emotional states and allows them to consider these questions.”

“It is a topical issue and contemporary, and we haven’t made enough advances to change this.”

Ms Johns said she had written the play in a poetic style that captured the Irish, “it is lyrical, haunting and with almost a touch of the supernatural.”

On hand to assist with the delivery is two-time Miles Franklin Award-winning, author and director Rodney Hall. His expertise as director of opera and theatre and the fact that he directed Quilting the Armor with Ms Johns is instrumental in working with her for this season.

“I know the kind of writing she does, and it Is a kind of free-flowing narrative that is not divided into scenes, so it leaves it to me to make the structural necessities of the way the play is put together,” Mr Hall said.

“[As] the play all takes place inside Kate Kelly’s head, I have to signal that to the audience without explaining it. In place of movement, we will be using positioning and dramatic lighting that allows it to be fairly still.”

“I love the raw element of it,” he added.

Kate Kelly was 35 years old when she died. She had one son who was killed in World War One.

This version is told differently for those who know the Kelly story, a look with fresh eyes.

Fire in the Head is running at La Mama Courthouse, 349 Drummond St, Carlton, from Wednesday, March 16 to Sunday, March 27 •

For more information:

Tickets $30 or $20 concession can be booked online at lamama.com.au

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