The President – Gate Theatre, Dublin

Reviewer: Laura Marriott

Writer: Thomas Bernhard

Director: Tom Creed

Power. Hate. Anger. Civil Unrest.

Sound familiar? This is the world of The President, a 1975 play resurrected for a Dublin audience in a time that recognises far too well the feelings and fears it encapsulates.

A dictator, the President, and the First Lady are preparing for a funeral. The sudden death of their closest ally The Colonel, has left the embattled couple descending into fear, paranoia, isolation. Only a few actors grace the stage and the couple dominate as everyone else around them has either fled or turned against them. This is a world where “politicians are dying in their droves” and beloved sons have sided with the enemy.

It is into this that we meet the First Lady. Preparing for the funeral her long-suffering maid Mrs Frolick, perhaps the only person she can speak freely with, runs around after her barely uttering a word. She throws designer clothes on the floor in annoyance and taunts Mrs Frolick about her “grey face” and poor clothing. She is mean and unfair, but clearly broken and struggling. The death of her beloved dog at the same time as The Colonel appears to have been the straw that broke the camels back. Detached from normal life, lonely and alone, she has only herself and her maid to take her frustrations out on.

In comparison, the President is a bombastic presence. Vainglorious with a booming voice that expects to be heard, he is seemingly untroubled by the rebellion outside his window. At one moment he can be ignoring the noise and chaos, at another he is declaring it is to be his time again: “let’s win it all back. Win back all that I have lost”. His hangers on, bored men, tired and fearful, lack the same enthusiasm for power that once guided them. They listen without speaking. Not really an audience for the President, more just bodies that he can talk at. The exception to this is his younger girlfriend, an actress who only speaks in order to prompt his musings or declare his brilliance, she has benefitted significantly from being associated with him. After a boozy lunch in which his temper vacillates, she greets him in a low cut, glamorous dress. She knows why she is there and doesn’t waste words on her paramour. He shows her off and gives her money to gamble. How long will she stand by him as the end draws closer?

Olwen Fouéré and Hugo Weaving play the couple. Two very successful and capable actors, they are each given significant time to monologue and hold the stage. The First Lady takes to the stage first and her speech is winding and frequently anguished. With the loss of her final friend, her dog, she is shown full of, grief, fear, and perhaps even falling into a full breakdown. There were moments played for laughs or that touched at real grief, but Fouéré started at full throttle and stayed that way. There were few changes in voice or tone to indicate her shifting emotions which detracted from the nuance of the piece. Weaving as the President is given a little more range to play, however the moments of comedy often land awkwardly and feel out of place. Perhaps The President is relying too much on star power and not enough on the undeniable talents of its cast. Julie Forsyth as Mrs Frolick the maid, perhaps had the best role. Relying primarily on posture, facial expressions, her body, and movement she shows the audience so much while saying little. One can’t help taking her side and waiting for her moments on stage.

The staging is one of the most interesting elements of the play. At first, we see the First Lady in her dressing room. Owning a relatively small space of it; her dog’s bed, her vanity and chair, a few hooks for clothes, she is largely confined to a small space which reflects the real power she holds at that time. There is interaction between the internal and external as at the back of the stage the audience can often here her husband bathing, laughing, and enjoying his daily massage. For the second part, the President and his men sit along a high bench listening to him talk. A see-through screen around the stage allows us to see his girlfriend come and go. We perhaps see more than the President himself, as we see her enjoy the benefits being with him brings, before she starts to gather what she can and leave before trouble finds them. Relatively simple, the staging is clever and allows the focus to remain on the actors. The stage is wide open and often largely empty in reflection of the ever-changing external situation. It isn’t until the ending, a unique twist that gets the audience up on their feet, that the couple finally take centre stage. Just not in the way they were hoping for.

The programme states that the play intends to take the audience into the heart of corruption and failures that embody power-hungry dictators. This it does well. The ending in particular shows the barebones that make up the backstage of a failing regime. However, it goes on to state that it wants to “continue the conversation of who we are and who we want to be, at home and internationally”. This, it doesn’t do quite so well. The overwhelming question left at the end of the play is ‘why didn’t it hit harder?’. A political play it had many elements that should have resonated strongly with the present time. However, they were like whispers of smoke, left there unattended and floating away. Power, hate, anger, civil unrest, dominate our newspapers, tv screens, and information feeds. This reviewer had to walk through multiple groups gathering in preparation to protest just outside the theatre. The key themes of abuse of power, dictatorship, democracy, couldn’t have been more timely. And yet, the play just didn’t resonate nearly as much as is could have and probably should have. It does little to allude to the present day or to draw on contemporary politics. Similarly, there were moments that were nearly tender and poignant, but the tone the actors were striving for was unclear.

A good play that should have been deeply powerful and resonate, unfortunately let itself down with its reticence and single tone approach.

Runs Until 24th March 2024.

The Review's Hub Score

Strongly Political

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The Ireland team is currently under the editorship of Laura Marriott. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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