The President review – Hugo Weaving satire verges on an endurance test

<span>Hugo Weaving and Julie Forsyth in Sydney Theatre Company’s The President.</span><span>Photograph: Daniel Boud</span>
Hugo Weaving and Julie Forsyth in Sydney Theatre Company’s The President.Photograph: Daniel Boud

“Politics is the highest form of art, my child,” the titular sleazy and bombastic president tells his actress mistress in this rarely performed Thomas Bernhard play from 1975. “The art of acting comes right after.”

This president is the leader of a small, unnamed European country, hiding away on Portugal’s coast from gossips, anarchists and a murderous son after yet another attempted assassination. His megalomania is ripe, in a time when some of our more shameless leaders perform like old troupers.

Related: Hugo Weaving: ‘This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done’

Played by Hugo Weaving in a Sydney Theatre Company co-production with Dublin’s Gate Theatre, this president is a comically vulgar man and lover of grand opera, who punctuates his self-aggrandising outbursts with Trumpian hand gestures.

His terrifying First Lady, played by Irish actor Olwen Fouéré, claims to love the works of French writers such as Proust and Voltaire, but there are no Enlightenment values at play as she repeatedly bullies her servant Mrs Frolick (Julie Forsyth), a physically comic silent witness to these dictators. The First Lady returns repeatedly to her dark view of the essence of life: “ambition / torture / hate / that’s all”.

Directed by Ireland’s Tom Creed, following its premiere season in Dublin, The President’s first half sees Fouéré deliver a monologue about the forces arrayed against the presidential incumbent. She, too, is an actor of sorts, performing annually in a children’s play, and is more invested in this year’s production than mourning a freshly murdered colonel.

There are funny interludes about a beloved pet dog, the only creature for whom the First Lady can muster empathy but who became collateral damage from an assassin’s bullet. Mrs Frolick almost steals the show, especially when she places on stage a gold-framed image of the deceased terrier, sentimentally painted in the heavens.

But these two scenes become an endurance test of repeated lines, testing an audience’s patience for exposition. Almost everything in this play has either taken place before the present or is imagined in the future. But in these two scenes, there is too little dramatic or comic payoff, and the same results could be delivered in half the running time.

While Fouéré’s delivery ultimately becomes a voluminous aria of self-obsession, her speech is mannered, especially at the beginning. Perhaps this is intended to convey the First Lady’s growing madness and detachment from reality, but it is difficult to engage with.

Bernhard was born in the Netherlands in 1931, but was taken to Bavaria by his Austrian mother in 1937 during Nazi rule, and had to join the Hitler Youth. He directly experienced Goebbels’ propaganda, which fuelled writing that expressed his distaste for cowardly autocrats and their enablers.

His English translator, Gitta Honegger, addresses the criticisms of repetition in his writing as a “conscious technique defining language as a system of quotations. If we don’t quote others we quote ourselves. As soon as we speak, we are impersonators …” Bernhard’s agenda, she writes in the foreword to her translation, is to “suggest a language structure cut off from its origin to exclude any possibility of expressing spontaneous, original thought”.

But this circuitous, regurgitative approach to language can prove deadening at times. Certainly, Bernhard’s darkly comic outlook and repeated locutions are reminiscent of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Happy Days, but those plays succeed better as timeless comedies plumbing the absurdity of life because we can see ourselves in Beckett’s ordinary characters, cheerily soldiering on regardless of the futility of their striving.

In a work marked by political satire, we look more for reflections of our times, for our fretting for democracy’s future to be writ large. Indeed, when Weaving’s president mentions a “huge paper conspiracy / against us / all the newspapers / every one of them / a massive paper conspiracy”, we think of a certain US political hopeful who recycles his cries of “witch-hunt” when held to account – but we are already getting that self-serving satire daily in our news cycle.

The emphasis on newspapers in The President marks its age. This era deserves a political satire that addresses, say, social media and partisan media’s role in promulgating disinformation, our growing dystopia racked by irreconcilable division.

Bernhard’s repetitions make more obvious sense after the interval, in the third scene, because Weaving and his mistress are sozzled on champagne in their Portugal retreat. Drunk people often aggressively repeat themselves and this makes for the most successful scene comically. The fourth scene, in which the president blathers on to his Portuguese hosts, adds little dramatically or narratively to what has gone before.

The ending, the short fifth scene, involves a gimmick of audience participation that I won’t spoil here, but is one Bernhard did not envisage in his script, suggesting Creed didn’t trust the original ending .

Go and see The President for a funny, commanding performance by Weaving, the physically funny bearing of Forsyth, and the acting athleticism of Fouéré. But you will have to persevere with the hollowness of tyrants cycled through again and again – surely only a revelation to those who have switched off from the news.