Power, National Theatre, Cottesloe, London

Power just ain't what it used to be

"I'm trying to create a modern state, a politics of consensus - yes, a new way," Louis XIV tells his mother in Power, Nick Dear's latest play, premiered at the Cottesloe. The 17th-century French monarch sounds, at that moment, quite presciently Blairite. That's the strange paradox of this piece, though. The characters often employ joltingly anachronistic expressions and concepts - they refer to a new chateau as "a most striking piece of modernism"; or to cooking the books as "creative accountancy" - but it is not, in any sharp or arresting sense, a history play that holds a revealing mirror up to our present-day political concerns.

By comparison with the concurrent production of Henry V at the Olivier, which, given its strong overtones of Blair and the war against Iraq, turns Shakespeare's historical drama into a play for today, Power lacks contemporary urgency.

Within its own terms, though, the play is assured, witty and absorbing, and it is presented in a lucid, well-acted and amusingly minimalist production by Lindsay Posner. All but two of its 19 scenes are set in 1661, the year when Cardinal Mazarin died and the young Louis took over the government of France. In the course of the play, which ends a couple of years later, the king (appealingly played by Rupert Penry-Jones) loses his beginner's nerves and embarks on a course that will make him the absolute monarchs' absolute monarch, with grand plans for Versailles and a rigid code of etiquette, designed to keep the nobility under his control.

Ironically, it's the man who stands to lose most from Louis's absolutism who goads him furthest in that political direction. Constantly smoothing his moustache and exuding elegant sensuality in Robert Lindsay's generous, captivating performance, Nicolas Fouquet is the friend and financial wizard who has simultaneously shored up and ripped off the monarchy by raising loans at exorbitant interest, amassing a vast personal fortune in the process.

This ambitious, would-be first minister, with his private navy, is brought down by a combination of fatal errors (accusing the king of lacking style a worse gaffe, evidently, than propositioning his mistress) and court intrigue that is fomented by Colbert (Stephen Boxer), the dry-stick of an accountant who is the spendthrift Fouquet's symbolic antithesis.

There is a string of enjoyably groan-worthy gags in the play that depend on hindsight - as when Louis exclaims, "This is France. We have no savage republicans here"; or when Barbara Jefford's splendidly commanding Anne of Austria, the queen mother, complains about the filthiness of that boggy village, Versailles. Only in one crucial respect is Louis given a sneak preview of the future and that is through the behaviour of Fouquet, who builds a glorious, rationally designed private palace at Vaux-le-Vicomte, and who affronts his monarch, "le Roi Soleil", by appearing to greet him glitteringly attired as the sun. Louis confiscates from Fouquet not only all his assets, properties and possessions, but the older man's insight that power is illusion and theatrical spectacle, and the king takes this blueprint to inordinate lengths at Versailles.

Aided by Lindsay's winning portrayal of Fouquet's amused rakishness and insecurity, the play manages to win a surprising degree of sympathy for this big-time embezzler. We prefer him to the books-balancing Colbert in the way that we warm to Mark Antony rather than to Octavius Caesar. There's an open-hearted generosity even about his faults.

What the play lacks is any vital connection to where we are now. There are a couple of references to Molière - "my pet clown" is how Fouquet describes the playwright as he ushers the royal family into his grotto for an entertainment. Watching Nick Dear's play, however, I was reminded of another historical drama that features the Sun King. But unlike Power, Bulgakov's Molière, in which Louis XIV is a coded precursor of Stalin, was certainly a dangerous play for its day.

To 2 October (020-7452 3000)

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