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The President review: Olwen Fouéré and Hugo Weaving give heroic performances in the Gate’s classy production

The Dublin theatre teams up with Sydney Theatre Company to celebrate the underperformed Austrian great Thomas Bernhard

The President

Gate Theatre, Dublin

The Gate Theatre has come together with Sydney Theatre Company for a production that celebrates the austere vision of an underperformed Austrian great. Tom Creed, who directs with his usual creative balance, believes that this is the first production of Thomas Bernhard’s The President in English. Indeed, he ventures that this is the first time any of Bernhard’s work has been seen on the Irish stage.

The production is, in some senses, adrift in time. Elizabeth Gadsby’s impressive set – a suspended box, mirrored then maritime – could, in its first incarnation, be something from either a 1960s Michelangelo Antonioni film or a contemporary hotel in the Philippe Starck style. We are actually at the palace of a dictator in the aftermath of an assassination attempt. Olwen Fouéré and Hugo Weaving, as first lady and president, essay, when not in uniform, a blank style that is always in fashion.

The political ambience is, however, very much of its era. First performed in 1975, The President emerged as the Red Brigade was in its bloody pomp, political assassinations were epidemic and the playwright’s home nation struggled with its wartime legacy. That melange delivered such uncompromising Austrian artists as Peter Handke, Michael Haneke and the awkward, unforgiving Bernhardt. This play is an exemplar of that mood.

Dramatic reversals are rare. There is just as little verbal to-and-fro. The production could be described as two interrupted monologues – suitable for radio – leading up to a brief closing coup de theatre. Fouéré, allowed a bit of malign glamour after a few years of horror harridans on film, dominates the opening act as the first lady takes us through the failed assassination with obsessive diligence. Events are endlessly rehashed. Words are repeated in the manner that David Mamet was contemporaneously making his own. There is endless, rhythmic mention of the person being addressed – much (if we can be allowed such a lowbrow comparison) as Leonard Rossiter employed in his TV comedy. The First Lady constantly refers her servant as “Mrs Frolick”. In the second half, as the president relaxes decadently in Portugal, Weaving makes great use of “my child” for his lover and “gentlemen” for his cronies.


The effect is hectoring, exhausting and alienating. All of which seems to be intended. The soaring Fouéré eats up the air as she visits familiar historical tropes of wives to the great leader. Like Eva Perón, this version worked her way up as an actor. Like most of the rest, she cares more for her pets than the people. Eschewing the traditional parody of tin-pot dictator (and, thank heavens, any effort at tempting parallel with a recent US president), Weaving, extravagantly bearded, suggests Timothy West in the role of Edward VII. All cigars and phlegmy laughter.

These are two heroic performances in a classy production that can’t quite compensate for the play’s obstinate lack of forward motion. Stefan Gregory’s sound design blasts like Abu Ghraib. The atmosphere stinks of a tyrannical sleaze that was everywhere about at the time of the play’s premiere. A lot to admire. Less to love. Which is probably the point.

The President is at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, until March 24th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist