Friday May 24, 2024
THE PRESIDENT
Review

THE PRESIDENT

By Diana Simmonds
April 18 2024

THE PRESIDENT, Sydney Theatre Company and Gate Theatre Dublin at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, 17 April-19 May 2024. Photography by Daniel Boud:

Prolific Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) is a new experience for most Sydney theatre-goers and this production of The President is a thrilling way to discover him. He was a giant of 20th-century German-speaking theatre and a controversial figure, revealed in a 2021 memoir by his half-brother Peter Fabjan as a difficult and emotionally cruel man – rather like the title character in this play!

A collaboration between STC and the Gate Theatre in Dublin – where it played a seven-week season ending in March – The President stars theatrical giants Hugo Weaving, Olwen Fouéré, and Julie Forsyth in a study of contrasts. (Weaving’s president and Fouéré’s First Lady never stop talking while Forsyth’s factotum Mrs Frolick utters no more than six words yet is hilariously riveting in her every moment.)

Although no country is named, The President is set in the Europe of the 1970s when Baader-Meinhof terrorised the bloated upper echelons of German society and inspired a generation of anti-fascists across Europe. The play opens as the president and his wife have narrowly escaped assassination while attending a memorial ceremony near the presidential palace.

A bullet intended for the president missed, hit, and killed his long-time lackey, a colonel, and also caused the death by heart attack of the First Lady’s beloved 17-year-old rescue dog. As she sits at her dressing table getting ready for the colonel’s funeral and bullying Mrs Frolick, it’s quickly obvious that sly and sustained satire is the real raison d’etre rather than political drama.

THE PRESIDENT

The first half (the play runs two hours 20 minutes including interval) is set in the First Lady’s quarters and her husband is mainly an irritating omnipresence in a nearby bathroom as he splashes, coughs, splutters, and finally groans under the hands of his masseur. The First Lady is in shock as she not only relives the moments of near death and actual murder but also the even greater shock of discovering their son has joined the anarchists. And the even greater tragedy of her dog’s death.

When not railing at Mrs Frolick, the First Lady confers with the dog, although his bed is now empty, and for those who know Fouéré only through her mesmerising solo Riverrun (STC, 2015), it’s a revelation that she can also be very, very funny.

It’s worth giving a moment’s thought to James Joyce, whose Finnegan’s Wake provided the source for Riverrun, because extravagant language – repetition, unlikely poetry, and unexpected depths – are what Fouéré delivers in the first half.

The lives and marriage of the ruling pair are warped by power and luxe living, and the second half focuses on the President at his getaway suite by the sea in Portugal. With him, as he polishes off three bottles of Dom is his nubile mistress, the Actress (Kate Gilmore) – disconcertingly referred to throughout as “my child”, along with little pecks on her cheek. Nevertheless, her gorgeous presence doesn’t stop him from fulminating over his wife’s preference for the Alps and the company of a vicar and the local butcher. He is nothing if not a typical alpha male.

THE PRESIDENT

Translated by Gitta Honegger (and performed for the first time in English) and directed by the Gate’s Tom Creed, The President is mesmerising, unsettling, wickedly satirical and beautifully crafted. Elizabeth Gadsby’s enclosed set is a minimal yet complex structure of transparent walls that initially conceal the president’s ablutions, then are illuminated to reveal the picturesque seafront of Estoril, (lighting: Sinead McKenna).

Each scene is heralded by startling bursts of percussion that, as the play progresses, are embellished by ever more startling brass and sound (music: Stefan Gregory). And the company is further enhanced by the silent presence of various waiters, ambassadors, military men, and the vicar and the butcher. They are played with utmost discipline by Danny Adcock, Helmut Bakaitis, Tony Cogin, and Alan Dukes, and the absence of hamming and slapstick means the company is all the funnier for it.

The final act is a naughty conceit and much better experienced if no one spoils the surprise. Meanwhile, Olwen Fouéré and Julie Forsyth are brilliantly, meanly funny, Hugo Weaving is a dictator who definitely deserves a bullet and Kate Gilmore does dribbling snoozing with uncommon elan. A unique night in the theatre and not to be missed.

 

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