Bearded-men heavily-tattooed with images of Ned Kelly might not be typical theatre-goers, but they're audience members Steven Rooke has become used to seeing when he looks out from the stage while playing Ned Kelly in the latest take on the infamous bushranger.
Matthew Ryan's play Kelly, opening at the Canberra Theatre Centre on Wednesday, reimagines the Kelly gang saga based on the idea Ned's brother Dan survived the Glenrowan siege.
It taps in on decades of supposed sightings of the bushranger.
A fictionalised visit from a disguised Dan Kelly to Ned's prison cell on the eve of his execution provides an opportunity for the brothers to relive the true stories of their escapades.
Kevin Spink, who plays Dan Kelly, describes it as "dude theatre", but hastens to add that women also play a strong role in Kelly's story.
"We've had men with tattoos all over them of Ned Kelly and they've adored it," Spink said.
"We've been telling people it is a masculine thing … it's brutal, it's honest."
Rooke said the "verbal boxing match" between the two brothers at the centrepiece of the relatively short play made it a great piece for theatre newcomers and also proved popular with school audiences.
"If it sparks conversation about the history that's not a bad thing," Rooke said.
"It's lovely to look out in the audience after the show and see all of these large bearded men who you wouldn't normally see at the theatre."
Spink said the cast were initially scared audiences would be offended by the play challenging the Kelly myth and legend, but Rooke says even diehard Kelly fans had recognised the play was a useful fictionalisation of the story.
"It's based on a guy named James Ryan who ended up going to Queensland, he had DK branded on his butt-cheeks, he had burns all over him and the idea that he's come back to visit his brother which is untrue," Rooke said.
"The events that unfold, the retelling of it, are all based on truth."
Rooke said the trademark armour was the main selling point of the Kelly gang story, but it's absent from the play set in his prison cell.
Instead, the stripped-back production challenges the audience to use their imagination and "go with it".
"All the images we have of various bushrangers there's nothing quite like these four men made of steel walking into a hail of gunfire from 30-odd police, it's an extraordinary image," he said.
"[The play] is not about the bells or whistles, it's about the drama."
Canberra is No 32 on the Queensland Theatre Company production's 15-week, 39-venue tour.
Kelly runs from June 24 to 27 at The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre. Tickets $30-$55. Bookings: 62 75 2700 or canberratheatrecentre.com.au.