Theatre review: Proud

At a time when far-right extremism is becoming more visible, Famous Last Words’ new play humanises a story behind it. Proud is brilliantly executed and deeply unsettling.

Aug 01, 2023, updated Aug 01, 2023
Henry Cooper is Jack in the Famous Last Words' production 'Proud'. Photo: Ben Allen / supplied

Henry Cooper is Jack in the Famous Last Words' production 'Proud'. Photo: Ben Allen / supplied

Proud opens with a compilation of news headlines, political grabs and commentary, featuring prominent and recognisable voices such as those of Donald Trump and Tony Abbott.

Much of the commentary is a war on the “left”, and a great deal of it is recent. It is an important inclusion, as it contextualises Proud in the current day, highlighting that these are not issues of the past, but of the present.

We then meet our protagonist, Jack, played by Henry Cooper. He’s a 19-year-old attending the backyard wedding of his brother, George, who has married an immigrant. Throw in old-school footy culture, his grandfather’s disapproval and some alcohol, and an ecosystem riddled with racism and micro-aggressions emerges.

Following this event, dynamics change, hardship hits and relationships are fractured. Jack, who once idolised both his veteran grandfather and his older brother, sees the foundation on which he built his identity crumbling. He seeks a sense of belonging and finds it in a white supremacist group.

Cooper’s performance is outstanding. He carries an 80-minute one-man-show on his shoulders and gives it pace, colour and authority. A production like Proud, which takes what many fear most and puts it centre-stage, is only successful if the audience is invested in the characters, which we are here.

Jack’s endearing, likeable and funny persona is as familiar as the trope of “the boy next door”. We know and love men like him; as his story unfolds, we simultaneously grow to fear him, but also feel a deep sense of compassion towards him.

Playwright James Watson ­– who is also Famous Last Words’ co-creative director and adapted its previous play Miss Julie (After Strindberg) does a remarkable job in anchoring audiences in the familiar, and giving us a way into Jack’s life. There is humour and charm in the script, which Cooper uncovers, under the direction of Connor Reidy. The writing is thoughtful and intelligent, and works to hold a mirror up to these societal, systemic issues, rather than demonise individuals.

On stage, all Cooper has alongside him are three green, plastic backyard chairs – the ones that stack nicely and are associated with quintessential Aussie barbecue culture. Reidy’s direction and use of these chairs is sleek and dynamic, and makes the stage feel full of the characters from Jack’s life.

Behind Cooper, on a raised platform on stage, is Daniel Pitt on the drums. This is a brilliant choice. At an emotional climax or significant scene changes, the drumkit works to break tension, snapping audiences out of a moment in a similar way to how we may gasp awake out of a nightmare.

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Monica Patteson’s lighting design is dramatic, uplighting Cooper from the boundary of the stage and giving him a sense of power, particularly as the play evolves.

Proud is brilliantly executed; it is also deeply unsettling. It does not shy away from name-dropping figures such as American far-right political commentator Tucker Carlson or referencing a list of controversial influencers. It also shows how these issues are unfolding closer to home, with a mention of the neo-Nazi protest in Melbourne earlier this year.

It is all uncomfortable and, frankly, terrifying, but Proud shows that perhaps, more than ever before, we need to look these threats in the face and understand the fear and disenfranchisement that is feeding the hate and rage. Until we can address what is behind it, this all may remain a threat.

Famous Last Words is presenting Proud is at the Goodwood Theatre and Studios until August 6.

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