A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Nick Dear’s new play Power at the National Theatre was a witty, ribald, relevant commentary on types of power wielded in the 17th century French court of Louis XIV, especially by genial financier Nicolas Fouquet, who seems to have invented creative accounting. Robert Lindsay is at his best as the eloquent, dashing Fouquet, whose powerful, Enron-like juggling of vast sums of money leads to both his rise and fall.

Money-lending to the impoverished royal family at 26% interest, creating hidden enterprises all over France, building (to the envy and emulation of the king) the palace Vaux le Vicomte set in spacious gardens, tax-collecting and sharing the spoils with the collectors, the spirited Fouquet Lindsay creates is not as shrewd in his social relations as he is with money. He propositions the king’s mistress, turns up in a sun costume at his lavish party for 6,000 guests, and worst mistake of all, tells the dowager queen that he is calling in his millions in loans to the family. As played by Barbara Jefford with the right mixture of hauteur and cunning, the dowager withdraws her favor and plots revenge at this insult to royalty by a member of the bourgeoisie.

Rupert Penry-Jones convincingly interprets the anxious young king Louis, who lacks determination at the beginning but grows in power – over women and over matters of state. His dance of seduction for a new mistress (Hattie Morahan) is charmingly executed to Lully-like music by Michael Nyman. As Lindsay’s Fouquet preens and flatters eloquently (with echoes of Rostand), there awaits in the counting house his opposite, the honest drudge Colbert, scouring the books and determined to bring financial stability to the government. Stephen Boxer’s matter-of-fact accountant presages the new, rational order the now-powerful Sun King seeks, replacing the colorful but corrupt power of Fouquet, who is arrested, tried, and jailed. “On 17 August 1661 at six in the evening Fouquet was the King of France; at two in the morning he was nobody,” pronounced Voltaire.

The story of Fouquet’s rise and fall is economically told by seven characters under the direction of Lindsay Posner, including Jonathan Slinger who adds humor as Louis’s pouting transvestite brother and Geraldine Somerville effective as his wife Henriette, who remains a friend to the fallen Fouquet. Christopher Oram’s sumptuous, silken costumes in shades of green and grey, set against a background suggesting marble, create an effect of opulence on the stage surrounded on three sides by the audience.