Theatre review: The President, Roslyn Packer Theatre

A talented cast is wasted in this disappointing production.
Four actors on a stage. On the left a white haired white woman in black, behind her a woman in a long red dress, seated at a desk is a middle aged white man with a beard, and on the right is a man in military uniform. The President.

Since the age of Aristotle and Euripides, politics has been a subject for the stage. After all, history tells us that politicians communicate through a haze of buzzwords and double-think that situates them in a unique section of society.

Since we already live in a world where a reality TV performer can be the US president, maybe in the future, the very idea of a “theatre actor” will be over, and only politicians will be allowed to grace the stage.

Let me be clear: The President, the latest production to grace the stage at Sydney’s Roslyn Packer Theatre, is a baffling and futile experience, gesturing towards a sense of modernity, but never quite extending its hand out far enough.

Originally written in Austria in the 1970s by novelist Thomas Bernhard and inspired by a series of real political assassinations throughout Europe, the play follows the President of an unnamed nation and his First Lady, who are rocked by an assassination attempt that instead kills their military colonel and pet dog. The play invests heavily in the absurdity of the situation and the growing anarchist uprising that’s brewing in the background.

Despite this being an interesting premise with lots of potential for drama, Bernhard’s script instead spends the majority of the runtime with rambling monologues where characters repeat the same information over and over and over again. How many times does it need to be said that there is an anarchist uprising? How many more times do we need to hear the details of the assassination attempt?

Not even the notable talent and gravitas of Hugo Weaving and Ireland’s Olwen Fouéré can save it. In fact, as the performance went on, I felt as if I were Alice through the looking glass, trying to see beyond a mere reflection, as certain phrases and words seem to recur endlessly in the almost hypnotic drone of Weaving’s baritone timbre.

Other actors appear from time to time, usually delivering Chaplin-esque silent performances during the aforementioned loquacious monologues. It’s a fun way to give these actors stuff to do I suppose, but feels so out of tune with what the two leads are doing. Julie Forsyth’s Mrs Frolick is an amusing character, but plays her role as the play is Fawlty Towers… meanwhile her scene partner Fouéré is going for something rather different.

Read: Dance review: Make Your Life Count, PICA

Unfortunately, audiences can predict where the tale is heading right at the beginning. There’s no plot, character development or dramatic tension to take us on a journey. The President plays the one note and it holds that one note for the entire time. Not only is it a waste of a good premise, but it is a waste of such an immensely talented cast. 

The President
By Thomas Bernhard

Roslyn Packer Theatre
Sydney Theatre Company
Translated by Gitta Honegger

Director: Tom Creed
Designer: Elizabeth Gadsby
Lighting Designer: Sinead McKenna
Music and Sound: Stefan Gregory
Movement Director: Danielle Micich
Dramaturg: Tom Wright
Associate Director: Ian Michael
Assistant Designer: Florentina Burcea

Cast: Danny Adcock, Helmut Bakaitis, Tony Cogin, Alan Dukes, Julie Forsyth, Olwen Fouéré, Kate Gilmore, Hugo Weaving
Tickets: $60-$155

The President will be performed until 18 May 2024.

Matthew Collins is a writer, director, and occasional actor whose works extends through literature, theatre, film, politics, gallery work, and critical writings. He is currently studying a Master of Curating and Cultural Leadership at UNSW. You can find him on Instagram @thematthewcollins