The National Theatre is currently in the midst of a purple patch. At the time that this review is written, three of its plays, His Girl Friday, Henry V and Jumpers are all in our Top Five. As if this were not good enough, two of them replaced Honour and Scenes from the Big Picture, recent Cottesloe successes.
Power may not quite be of this incredibly high standard but it is another good play and it is pleasing to report that a contemporary playwright is willing to take on not only a historical subject but a foreign one. In the current political climate, Nick Dear might have feared that Francophobia would make this topic less popular than should be the case.
This play takes us to France during the period that the Sun King: Rupert Penry-Jones as Louis XIV begins to take over the country from his Regent-mother Queen Anne, played by Barbara Jefford. She had happily and successfully ruled with the scheming assistance of Cardinal Mazarin, a man popularly assumed to be her lover.
Power opens with the death of Mazarin and deals with a battle for power between the Queen and her son on one level and two courtiers on another. As the richest man in the country and financier to the impecunious Royal Family, Robert Lindsay's Fouquet has an unwritten right to take over as first minister. However, since he became rich on the back of an assortment of deals at the expense of his patrons, he faces a struggle with Colbert (Stephen Boxer).
These two are wonderful characters and antagonists. On the one hand, the colourful, verbose Fouquet, patron to Molière and one of those rarities, a man who sounds as if he has swallowed a dictionary but become more entertaining as a result. On the other is the mole-like Colbert, a scheming, dull accountant but with a dry sense of humour. The latter aims to prove that Fouquet's wealth has been derived using accounting practices popular in current times at Enron. It is inevitable that the winner of this battle will be the auditor!
Penry-Jones can be a little uncertain as the King, but does show how the 22 year-old gradually gains confidence as he escapes from his mother's apron strings. Jonathan Slinger as his brother, Monsieur, is an unbelievably camp comic figure who reaches his pinnacle wearing a frilly dress and duck egg blue high-heeled ladies shoes.
Much of the comedy of the play derives from the young King's passion for his brother's wife, known as Madame. She is the daughter of Charles I of England and sister of the current King, Charles II. Geraldine Somerville gives a lovely ironic performance as the double Royal, loving and bitchy in equal parts.
Her problems begin when Queen Anne decides that the affair must go underground. She therefore insists that one of Madame's 16 year-old serving maids - Hattie Morahan as the remarkably innocent (not too mention dull) Louise - is introduced to the King as a decoy. The inevitable happens and the King falls for this child who is soon providing children of her own from the wrong side of the royal bed.
Nick Dear manages to make his history constantly entertaining and shows his audience how the legend of the Sun King developed. Many of Louis' best-remembered traits were apparently stolen from Fouquet, and the Palace of Versailles, built to please Louise, was a bigger, better version of the older man's home at Vaux le Vicomte.
Power benefits from a great rhythm introduced by director Lindsay Posner, and Dear's love of language. It also boasts strong performances particularly from Geraldine Somerville, Robert Lindsay, Stephen Boxer and Barbara Jefford. The music is very apt, composed by Michael Nyman in The Draughtsman's Contract mode.
This is yet another good, intelligent play to add to the list of musts-sees at the National. For those who are of a historical bent and have tired of Shakespeare, it could be top of that list.