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Review: The President at Roslyn Packer Theatre

Review by Kate Gaul

“The President” is a co-production between Ireland’s the Gate Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company. Directed by Irishman Tom Creed, this production is claimed to be the first English language production of Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard’s play. Bernhard was born in the Netherlands in 1931 but was taken to Bavaria by his Austrian mother in 1937 during Nazi rule and had to join the Hitler Youth. He directly experienced Goebbels’ propaganda. It was first performed in 1975 and depicts his hatred of cowardly autocrats and their enablers, the abuses of power, the disdain and paranoia of privilege, and prophecies of the age of surveillance, corruption, and terrorism.

In a small, unnamed country, there has been an assassination. However, the gunmen missed their intended targets, the President (Hugo Weaving), and the First Lady (Olwen Fouéré), killing instead a loyal bodyguard and the First Lady’s beloved dog. As a revolution brews right outside their front door, the First Lady sits with a mixture of hysterics, rage, and obsession. The President holds forth in a verbal tsunami of self-aggrandisement and vainglory, while his mistress, an actress, gambles his cash away in the blackjack room next door.

The first half of the play is held by the formidable Olwen Fouéré.  Remembered from her impressive white-knuckle performance in “Riverrun” (STC, 2015). The First Lady is a self-absorbed, tormented character.  Preparing for the funeral of the late Colonel and with increasing anxiety around whether her son is or is not involved with the anarchists, she laments the demise of her beloved pooch and in insanely cruel to her near-silent maid (played heroically but Julie Forsythe). A commanding, narcissistic, haranguing egomaniac.  Played with admirable elegance and vitality both physically and verbally: this is a performance not to be missed.  The text is alienating with its endless repetitions but in the hands of Olwen Fouéré I appreciated her depiction of increasing detachment from reality.  I think the playwright and perhaps his translator here (Gitta Honegger) are nodding at Becket. Perhaps.  The scene is not without humour, but it proved hard going for many audience members and the house was decidedly less full after interval. 

The second half belongs to Hugo Weaving, and we know how he can command a stage. He shines, portraying the President with bottomless self-aggrandisement (“This country is too small for me”) and sleaze (he refers to his mistress, a third-rate actress, as “my child”). His paramour played by a subtle Kate Gilmore is an appropriate foil to the repulsive bigot she serves. Striking support is offered from from a mostly silent supporting cast Helmut Bakaitis, Danny Adcock, Alan Dukes, and Tony Cogin.

Designer Elizabeth Gadsby creates a timeless setting (there is nothing to indicate this is 1975). It’s all very minimalist and contemporary with beautiful costumes.  Lighting by Sinead McKenna does its job during the scenes and becomes pulsating and flickers during the long curtain-down scene changes.  All of this is accompanied by Stephan Gregory’s extremely loud music.  Anyone alienated by the play is finished off by the lighting and music during the interludes.  The performances do lean into the loud and shouty – it’s an abrasive and difficult world to sit with and as I mentioned some opted for home at interval.

Now, there hasn’t been a show that has divided audiences in Sydney for a while – from the water cooler to social media people either love “The President” or hate it. Why this why now is the most common question. Quoting from Steve Dow in the SMH “In a work marked by political satire, we look more for reflections of our times, for our fretting for democracy’s future to be writ large. Indeed, when Weaving’s president mentions a “huge paper conspiracy / against us / all the newspapers / every one of them / a massive paper conspiracy”, we think of a certain US political hopeful who recycles his cries of “witch-hunt” when held to account – but we are already getting that self-serving satire daily in our news cycle. The emphasis on newspapers in “The President” marks its age. This era deserves a political satire that addresses, say, social media and partisan media’s role in promulgating disinformation, our growing dystopia racked by irreconcilable division.”

The closing scene of the production is worth waiting for.  This is the invention of Tom Creed and his collaborators. The audience is invited to leave the auditorium via the stage, past the President’s lying-in-state.  It is a cool gimmick and most of the audience (those who were left) took up the opportunity to be ushered onto and across the stage and then back into the foyer.  The idea is that the audience are mourners passing the Presidents body now lying in state. If you stick around, it adds a fair bit more time to an already long night. The idea of getting up close to Hugo Weaving is fascinating after such an energy filled eruption of a performance. But alas, I suspect it was a dummy.  I asked the usher, left in the house, if the actors would take a curtain call and was told no.  I guess they had left the building as well!

Image Credit: Daniel Boud


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