Famous Last Words. Goodwood Theatre. 29 Jul 2023
Who would want to be James Watson?
He returns polished from the east to his hometown, sets up a theatre company resident in the gorgeous old Goodie, deconstructs a Strindberg and has the city’s critics headlining: “Wunderkind”.
He’s a hard act to follow. Even for himself.
Now his Famous Last Words company presents Watson’s own words - a play called Proud. It is a stridently political one-hander which features that very promising young actor, Henry Cooper.
It is a lot of words and Cooper does not lose a single one. He delivers, often with machinegun fury, but always with impeccable articulation. Not that they are very nice words. They are downright nasty and written in the sorry semi-literate street idiom of the day.
Proud is about the right-wing nationalist phenomenon, very much inspired by the January 6, 2021 insurrection American Proud Boys but, with reference to the Cronulla riots, transposed to Australia. Watson’s character is called Jack and he is a lad disappointed in his life. He was bullied and humiliated at school and left to care for his dying war hero grandfather by a brother who not only was never there to stand up for him but who also dared to marry an immigrant and move away. He found a new sort of brotherhood from the beer and barbie camaraderie of suburban fascists.
The play is as subtle as a sledgehammer and as didactic as Baptist tub-thumper.
It is the considered passion of a generation, and it provokes in us old theatre hands fond memories of the agit prop of yore.
It offers nothing new except the reminder that there is nothing new. Humanity makes the same mistakes over and over. Unkindness and bullying damages people. Hatred and racial stereotyping are born of ignorance.
How ironic, then, that a play bellowing racial intolerance should produce love. But, of course, one loves Watson and his shining ilk for their laudable zeal. He reminds us of us, and one hopes that his play’s sentiments may at some time, somehow, not be preaching to the choir.
The play is performed in the smaller Goodwood theatre space, which once was a library. Walled in by black drapes, the audience tries not to trip over the footlights as it takes its place on two sides and in two tiers, with drummer Dan Pitt on a corner dais and just three green yard chairs as props. Director Connor Reidy has Cooper move the chairs to symbolise this and that. It’s an old minimalist trope which is either loved or hated by audience members. And, he also has the play’s dramatic emphases underscored by abrupt drum explosions. Some people like a cacophonous shock. This critic is not among them. Damagingly loud in a small venue, she says.
But Famous Last Words is well and truly alight on the map now, and we wait with immense curiosity for what next it presents.
When: 29 Jul to 6 Aug
Where: Goodwood Theatre