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  • Chris O'Rourke

The President

Hugo Weaving and Kate Gilmore in The President. Image by Ros Kavanagh


Most likely receiving its Irish premiere and first performance in English, The President, by controversial Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, is an absurdist comedy inspired by the political landscape of Europe during the 1970s. Most notably the terrorist attacks and assassinations carried out by The Baader Meinhof Group. A laboured indictment of totalitarian dictatorships, Bernhard's neglected play from 1975 will surely whet the tedium of those uninterested in political theory. Thankfully Tom Creed’s firm direction delivers top tier theatre courtesy of two outstanding performances. Even as two near silent performances almost steal the show.

Julie Forsyth and Olwen Fouéré  in The President. Image by Ros Kavanagh

Exploring an assassination attempt on an unnamed President in some unnamed country, Bernhard’s clunky script, a clunkiness preserved in Gitta Honegger’s translation, serves up two interrupted monologues, beginning with the First Lady. Repetition a device that soon becomes dreary as she reflects, ad infinitum, on the Anarchists assassination attempt which killed her dog. All to facilitate a dated discussion on art and politics, the art of politics and the politics of art. Olwen Fouéré’s demented First Lady, a trophy wife who looks great in black, sits before her dresser in her hall of mirrors bedroom abusing her servant Mrs Frolick, a scene stealing Julie Forsyth. Class conflict clearly informing their relationship, power and terror informing its subtext, with Fouéré and Forsyth making for a formidable pair. The chilled bedroom phase one of Elizabeth Gadsby's stunning design, illuminated to perfections by Sinéad McKenna. Meanwhile, offstage, the President hacks so many coughs you wonder if he’ll make it to intermission.

Daniel Reardon, Hugo Weaving and Kate Gilmore in The President. Image by Ros Kavanagh

For a single, short scene there’s an electrifying hint of the play The President might have been. Fouéré parking her monologue for a bout of verbal fisticuffs with a mesmerising Hugo Weaving as The President. Fouéré at her most visceral when not trapped behind a table looking like a disinterested news anchor. Weaving exceptional as the megalomaniac President whose lengthy monologuing soon bores his actress lover, a sultry Kate Gilmore, as they party overlooking a holiday postcard backdrop. Phase two of Gadsby’s brilliant design again suggestive of a fragile, self-reflecting universe. Like Forsyth, Gilmore provides the audience with connection and commentary whilst saying practically nothing. And so it goes, more or less, till the final scene whose theatrical sleight of hand catches you by surprise. Here’s what you can say about it: if you think you should, you should.

Julie Forsyth and Olwen Fouéré  in The President. Image by Ros Kavanagh

With The President, Bernhard doesn’t make things easy. A dramatically dull tale about two despicable characters, engagement is further hampered by Bernhard playing literary Tetris. Like a lacklustre libretto lacking a musical score, mantra like lines are spun this way and that looking to establish connections. Monologues confirming it’s only ever Bernhard's voice you hear. Yet Creed, whilst acknowledging the device, makes sure not to fall into its trap and fleshes out its two central characters, ensuring Fouéré and Weaving are thrilling to watch. Even so, it's the mostly silent Forsyth and Gilmore who risk stealing the show. Forsyth’s brilliant comic maid saying everything with a sigh. Gilmore’s gold digging actress weaving revelations from an empty champagne glass. Both showing how to say so much when given so little to work with. Who, along with Bryan Burroughs, Chris McHallem, Will O’Connell and Daniel Reardon, add rich moments of humour.

Hugo Weaving and Kate Gilmore in The President. Image by Ros Kavanagh

Presented by The Gate Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company, The President isn’t likely to be everyone’s cup of tea. Some will see it as a forgotten European classic long overdue a revival that speaks to the political landscape of today. For others it’s a political and post-dramatic drag as dated as the 70s where it should’ve remained. To call it Kafkaesque an insult to Kafka. What’s not in doubt is Tom Creed’s superb direction, an exceptional cast, and top class production values elevate The President into something theatrically intriguing. Making it, at the very least, a worthwhile curio. At best, a risk that paid off. If you’re still unsure, its four central performances make it a risk well worth taking.

The President by Thomas Bernhard, translated by Gitta Honegger, presented by The Gate Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company, runs at The Gate Theatre until March 24.

For more information visit The Gate Theatre


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