“Power” serves up a slice of 17th-century France without much, well, power, though some may well be seduced by the surface glitz of a National Theater production from director Lindsay Posner (“Sexual Perversity in Chicago”) that allows a starry cast its chance to preen. Detailing the machinations at the French court of Louis XIV circa 1661, the so-called “Sun King” (Rupert Penry-Jones), and his money-minded financier Fouquet (Robert Lindsay), the play may well be remembered as Lindsay’s warmup in how to work an audience in preparation for his putative turn in the West End bow of “The Producers.” (Thesp is in negotiations to play Bialystock when the record Tony winner reaches London.) If his perf is entertaining enough without probing very deep, that much is of a piece with Dear’s play, which shows every intention of wanting to resonate with modern-day Britain but in the end is about little besides itself.
That might not matter as much in some alternate TV version of “Power” — if, that is, a primetime channel would allow contempo language (“Holy fucking God and all his shitty little angels”) that as often as not makes it sound as if the play’s white-faced, bewigged assemblage had taken a leaf from “Jerry Springer — The Opera,” also in the National rep. Although Anne of Austria, the Queen Mother (Barbara Jefford, majestic as always), tosses off words like “scintillant,” linguistic elegance exists to be shed along with the characters’ clothes, revealing humankind’s baser, grubbier instincts that survive, whatever one’s social status.
As the play opens, Cardinal Mazarin has died, clearing the way for godson Louis to fully assert his authority at age 23. “You were born to be king, no further qualification required,” his mother, Anne, intones, asserting the credo of divine right. What of those who have to scrabble their way to power? Enter the money-minded Fouquet, whose tables are as “sumptuous” as his politics are “urbane.” Grandly installed at Vaux-le-Vicomte, Fouquet is the Superintendent of Finance who will end up paying dearly (Dearly?) for his deception and flattery. Fouquet’s nemesis is to be found less in the young king himself than in fellow courtier Colbert (Stephen Boxer), who dryly awaits his own “new age” while bringing Fouquet to account: the upstanding (if also uptight) minister poised for battle with the freewheeling, self-regarding connoisseur of greed.
“Power” is in the style of many history plays — Dear’s own Hogarth-related “The Art of Success” included — in approaching the past with a decidedly present-day ear. And why not, one might ask, grateful for a period drama prised free of the fustiness that can beset the genre? After a while, however, one wonders whether Dear hasn’t merely avoided one trap only to tumble outright into another. While Christopher Hampton’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” suggested definitively the way in which the depredations of the haut monde are in no way confined by period costume, “Power” opts for outright raunchiness (“You’ve never had a cock between your thighs,” the adulterous Louis remarks to a virginal 16-year-old newly arrived at court) or the sheerly overripe — “Your skin is a pigment as yet uninvented” sounds unlikely to make it on the speed-dating circuit.
There are enough vague affinities drawn with Britain today — a nod toward today’s Treasury chief Gordon Brown here, the Labor party’s misbegotten Millennium Dome there — to hint at wider resonances to Dear’s script beyond the Busby Berkeley-ish sight of Fouquet, at his most foolish, dressed as the sun to greet celebrants at a gala. In his efforts to create “a modern state, a politics of consensus,” Louis sounds uncannily like an embyronic Tony Blair, albeit of a peculiarly full-lipped and androgynous sort, and Penry-Jones has his best moment in the role near the end of act one when he arrives in full plumage to dance a mad duet with a mannequin that the libidinous king strips bare. (It’s a shame the actor — a sensation in London’s world preem of Edward Albee’s “The Play About the Baby” — mispronounces the name of Lully, the reigning composer of the time.)
Penry-Jones plays straight man, as it were, twice over here, his foot-stomping in the company of Jefford’s imposing mama giving way to the stiff-backed sobriety with which he ultimately shows up Fouquet as a fraud. Even pancaked to the hilt, Penry-Jones is the Marlboro Man compared to Jonathan Slinger’s squeaky-voiced Philippe, Louis’ brother who has worn frocks from the age of 3. But among the cast, not even stage veteran Lindsay in full sail (“They like me; thank God I am liked,” he says, sounding like a neoclassical Sally Field) can deepen our response to a play whose pleasures remain on the surface — in the sweep of a cloak, for instance, or the gilded grandeur of Christopher Oram’s traverse set, which effects cunning variations on his design earlier this year for the Donmar revival of “Caligula.” With lighting designer Wolfgang Goebbel’s floodlit stage providing its own visual elan, all the most abundant resources — a Michael Nyman score included — can’t blind one to the feeling that “Power” has precious little there.