By Taylor Green
This play tells the story of Louis, a young king of France who decides that he wants to rule personally. As such, it is a play about the art of politics. The title of Nick Dear’s play is aptly chosen.
For Louis to take power he has to escape the domination of his mother, out-manoeuvre one ambitious politician and keep another at a safe distance. And all this is to be done when the state is weak and poor, and anarchy and terror are real possibilities. The characters remember well the disorders of the Fronde and of the English civil war. Louis may well want to take control of his court, but the government in turn needs to stay in control of France.
James Mercer is exceptional as Louis in what must be his best BLT performance yet. He starts as the novice monarch admitting that he is still learning his lines, and gradually becomes a ruler keeping the peace by keeping everyone in their proper place, and in turn entrenching the system he creates. He learns, masters and then changes the rules of the game. These fundamental shifts must be convincing, else the play could not work. And these changes need to be shown in different interactions with each of the other six characters: mother, brother, two lovers, and two powerful political manipulators.
There is then the corresponding loss of power for the politician Fouqet, the charismatic and well-connected purveyor of ready money to the impoverished crown. The audience need to believe that Fouquet is capable of having this immense power and as capable of losing that power. Christopher Cullen is outstanding in this difficult crucial role. You watch how he goes from one who casually pulls hoods over the heads of others to one reduced to having a prisoner’s hood pulled over his own head. The lust for life is visibly sucked out, and his final soliloquy is poignant.
The contrast to Fouquet is Colbert, the collator of data and backroom intriguer. Fouquet may have wealth, charm and a quick wit, but Colbert has information, patience and a strategic mind, and these are more important. Colbert does not change during the play but he is in effect the pivot on which the court turns against Fouquet. Andy Solts plays this part perfectly. He is convincing and wonderfully dislikeable as this donnish sly backstabber. You are not surprised when he prevails over Fouquet.
The rest of the cast were also superb. Trish Osborne-King as the King’s mother Anne was striking and dignified, even though she was losing genuine power as the play went on and is quite at a loss to the new regime at the end. Max Pritchett as the foppish and powdered Philippe achieved the right balance of light relief and a knowing courtly cynicism. Laura Adams nicely brought out the many frustrations of the lively but resigned English princess Henriette. And Heather Phelps was wonderful as the lowly courtier who supposedly seeks no favours or advantage but somehow ends up with everything she wants.
The play had the immense advantage of Tony Jenner’s excellent design: the almost-minimalist stage worked as a banqueting hall, a hawking field, a firework display and a dungeon. The use of a large golden picture frame was inspired, and the works of art were well chosen. The costumes were awesome, and Kerstin Beard and Debbie Griffiths should be congratulated. The combined effect of the frame and the costumes was that characters often seemed to have just climbed out of a period painting onto the stage. The special sound effects must also be commended: the dripping in the dungeon was especially well done.
The only possible gripe was a consequence of the play’s overall success. The themes of the play were plainly universal (politicians are politicians) and needed no elaboration as to the play’s modern relevance. And so the recurring interventions of modern pop to emphasise the contemporary applicability felt like needless jolts. That said, many of the choices of music – for example ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ – were witty. But the strengths of the play did not need the gloss of any contemporary soundtrack.
Overall, this production was expertly directed by Hilary Cordery, and it could not have been better as an exercise in showing changing complex patterns of dominance and appeasement, ambition and failure. The play was well-acted, well-produced, and a triumph.
As it happens, the King Louis of this story became the Sun King, the most brilliant monarch of his day. But the merit of this production is that it also indicated how another but less able King Louis of France would not long after lose both his throne and his head. Not all those who obtain absolute political power have the sense to use it well.