What goes on in the mind of a woman convicted and hanged for murder – not only on death row, but beforehand, through years of hard times, rough company and bad choices? Jean Lee was the last woman to be executed in Australia, at Pentridge Prison in 1951. The story of her part in a violent and ugly crime, and her imagined inner thoughts, are brought vividly to life in “post-punk underbelly song cycle” The Hanging of Jean Lee; based on the verse biography by poet Jordie Albiston.
Composer Andrée Greenwell first read Albiston’s The Hanging of Jean Lee while the two were working on Dreaming Transportation – a musical portrait of Australia’s first women convict settlers, commissioned for Sydney Festival 2003. Like her 18th-century compatriots, Jean Lee was a convicted criminal: she was sentenced to death in Melbourne in 1950, along with her lover Robert Clayton and his friend Norman Andrews, for brutally torturing and murdering 73-year-old bookie William ‘Pop’ Kent in a robbery gone wrong, or gone mad.
Upon first reading, Greenwell says, she couldn’t imagine living with Lee’s dark story for the time it would take to adapt it as a music theatre piece. “But I was very taken by the impact of the writing,” she says, “the rage of this woman; the conflict in the story – of sympathy for this character, and then being appalled by the things she was involved with”.
Albiston’s narrative, based on extensive research, dramatises Lee’s inner conflicts, anger and frustration: she had married young, got away from her husband and abandoned her child to her mother; become involved in petty crime and prostitution; and was subjected to violence and abuse in her relationship with Clayton. It didn’t take long for Greenwell to see herself “entering the territory” and making the work, Greenwell says. “Music allows us to grapple with often-very-difficult human experiences in complex ways, because of the incredibly delicate range of emotions you can evoke, beyond the page. It can really bring to life the story in a very different way.”
Greenwell’s music for The Hanging of Jean Lee shifts restlessly between genres without settling; deliberately avoiding any distinct evocation of Lee’s era. There are nods to swing and jazz – “She was a really terrific ballroom dancer with her first husband Ray Brees” – hints of blues and rock, and what Greenwell has previously called ‘retro-indie-post-punk’. Trembling horns and rumbling bass notes create noirish tension, against which Max Sharam’s phenomenal voice forcefully expresses Lee’s anger or frustration or lament. This second production will tell the story in concert: behind Jean are screened the relics of her story – fingerprint documents, mug shots, news clippings; even Clayton’s signed confession, in which he dobbed Jean in as one of the murderers.
In researching Jean Lee’s life, both Greenwell and Albiston drew on Don Treble, Paul Wilson and Robyn Lincoln’s book Jean Lee: The Last Woman Hanged in Australia, which Greenwell says “wanted to present a more fair view of the story than the kind of sensationalist writing that happened at the time and in the years afterwards”. Greenwell took leads from the book to source the image material for the show. “It’s very much in a biographic documentary style. But it’s really pared down – it’s not like watching a film, it’s stylised…”.
The Hanging of Jean Lee is “a dark work”, says Greenwell. “I also see it as being related to Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, that explored crime in an underclass of Europe at the time, integrating the new popular music of the jazz era.”
“So it sort of continues that tradition… This is a dramatic song cycle which follows the narrative, and the tones of the songs expose the characters in particular situations or emotional states.”
The complexity of Jean Lee’s story encompasses the murder itself; Lee’s background, bad choices and the company she’d fallen into; and the public outcry against her sentence. Especially conflicted is her initial confession – perhaps trying to protect her lover from the death sentence, in the belief that a woman would not be hanged – followed, during her trial, by her desperate insistence that she was innocent. Alongside Sharam’s riveting portrayal of Lee, musicians Hugo Race, Jeff Duff and Simon Maiden play a range of roles including Clayton and Andrews, police, and others who were influential in Lee’s life, or her death.
The sharing of roles between the male performers is significant for Greenwell:
“I’ve thought a lot about Jean’s time and the kind of male worlds she seemed to put herself in… She did not tend to be a woman with a lot of woman friends – she became a prostitute, she worked in a pub, she hooked up with these petty criminals… So there’s the press, there’s the police, there’s the judicial system and there are her lovers, and that’s the range of male voices that tell the story with her. And that is of the time, too: this post-War situation where she did not exemplify a good Australian housewife.”
Following its premiere in Sydney in 2006, it’s taken seven years for The Hanging of Jean Lee to finally come to Melbourne, the city where Lee’s crime and execution took place. But for Jean Lee and her lover, heading down from Sydney to Melbourne for the races may well have been a split-second decision, a whim – perhaps just an excuse for another drinking binge.
“She was a major alcoholic by the time she walked into that bar with Bobby Clayton, to set up Pop Kent. I think there are a few things that a work like this can provide reflection upon, and another one is of course addiction and violence in our society, and the things that happen as a consequence.”
Elsewhere, Greenwell has described The Hanging of Jean Lee as “operatic”; Jordie Albiston’s text is infused with the pain of what Lee had to endure for her crime, as well as the horror of the crime itself. “That’s the razor’s edge of the piece. Jordie hates what Lee did, the bad choices she made, but there’s empathy and insight as well.”
The Hanging of Jean Lee
Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
Sat 7 – Sun 8 December 2013