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The President - Sydney Theatre Company (NSW)

By Thomas Bernhard, translated by Gitta Honegger. Directed by Tom Creed.

A production that will test its audiences’ endurance, The President is an enduring tale of the theatre of politics on a sensational level.

Reviewed by Justin Clarke

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company

Until 19th May, 2024

Jointly produced by the Sydney Theatre Company and the Gate Theatre (Dublin), Thomas Bernhard’s The President will both fascinate audiences and test their theatrical endurance in a production that has a lot to say, and delivers virtuosic performances by its two leads but, to quote the Bard, requires “more matter, with less art”.

Bernhard, who was better known as an Australian novelist, was also a prolific playwright. He was known for both detesting the bureaucracy that governed his home country, and producing works that bordered on Theatre of Cruelty for the bourgeoisie audiences. Bernhard's novels pushed every idea to its extremities, and his plays take a similar format. The President, translated here by Gitta Honegger, is hyperbolic in its structure, revelling in its own insanity, whilst offering musings of black humour throughout. 

The President - Sydney Theatre Company (2024). Images by Daniel Boud

In an unnamed country, a third failed assassination attempt has taken place on the President (Hugo Weaving), killing instead a trusted Colonel, and conjuring a heart attack in the First Lady’s (Olwen Fouéré) beloved lapdog. The play itself is essentially four monologues, divided throughout the two acts. The first belonging to the First Lady as she mourns the loss of her dog, whilst seethingly tearing apart her husband and torturing her maid, Mrs Frolick (Julie Forsyth), in the process. The second sees The President lounging about in Portugal, having absconded with a young actress over whom he dotes, and subjects to his drunken ramblings of power and greatness.

Directed by Tom Creed, The President is most certainly a test of endurance for its audience. According to Creed, Bernhard’s writing feels like “directing Beckett and Wilde at the same time”. This rings true when taking in the cyclical nature of the dialogue. Fouéré’s First Lady presents an icy monologue repetitively detailing the paranoia of her son who has joined the Anarchist Movement, the loss of her dog, the references to her relationship with the Chaplain as well as her disdain for her husband. Fouéré powers through the dialogue with beats so fine you can almost see Bernhard’s dialogue playing out in subtitle. But apart from some moments of dark humour and one-liners towards Mrs Frolick, the direction doesn't offer much for Fouéré to chew on.

Weaving gives a brutal performance of indulgence. He is both Macbeth and Caesar at the same time.

Bernhard’s creation of his two unnamed characters dominate the stage, with the supporting characters merely being props or dressings for the world around them. They ask questions of their servants, and give them no time to respond. With such dense writing, much of the dialogue is so heavy and frequent that it isnt given time to breathe, ultimately similar to the experience Creed imparted onto the audience.

Creed doubles down on this in between each monologue with the blaring fanfare and ominous choral music echoing from the speakers, as if from some Hitchockian score. Stefan Gregory’s music is unsettling and uncomfortable as it lingers for a long time between scene changes. Sinéad McKenna’s lighting design too is at play in these moments, as lights flicker and flash at intermittent times, again testing the audience on their endurance, never letting us fully relax into the piece.

It’s not until the second act that Weaving’s President takes centre stage and grips you until the end. Weaving gives a brutal performance of indulgence. He is both Macbeth and Caesar at the same time, his paranoia at the third assassination attempt bubbling beneath the surface of his dictator’s mask. While unnamed, it’s clear that the President hails from a European country full of autocracy and the power of dictatorship. The rise of the Anarchists unsettles Weaving’s dictator as he plays out a dictator whose political leadership and power is terminal. Unheaping this onto his young actress muse (Kate Gilmore) Weaving indulges in memories of greatness, and many, many glasses of champagne. 

This production will unsettle the most seasoned of theatre goers and test your ability to endure a unique style of theatre

Upon returning for the second act, seats around us were left empty. It’s ironic that Bernhard may have found this amusing, even successful as he often took delight in making his audience squirm. It’s been told from Bernhard himself that he left one of his own plays, who upon collecting his cloak was asked from the attendant, “You don’t like it, either, do you?”

When it comes time for the ending, Creed gives audiences what may be one of the most unique endings that is both fitting and utterly mind-boggling at the same time. The world of the play quite literally spills into the world of the audience, offering us a slice of realism that takes the message of The President to a whole new level. This production will unsettle the most seasoned of theatre goers and test your ability to endure a unique style of theatre, but when it succeeds you are offered an enduring tale of the theatre of politics on a sensational level.


Director Tom Creed

Designer Elizabeth Gadsby

Lighting Designer Sinead McKenna

Music & Sound Stefan Gregory

Movement Director & Intimacy Coordinator Danielle Micich

Dramaturg Tom Wright

Associate Director Ian Michael

Associate Designer Florentina Burcea


Danny Adcock, Helmut Bakaitis, Tony Cogin, Alan Dukes, Julie Forsyth, Olwen Fouéré, Kate Gilmore, Hugo Weaving

Marketing image Rich Gilligan


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