Power struggles

Theatre - Sheridan Morley on 17th-century French courtly life, Japanese kabuki and inner-city Britai

Nick Dear is a dramatist of distinction who now returns to the National with a play that fails only by comparison with Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Once again, we are concerned with French sexual politics, played out against a background of courtly elegance, as Power tells the story of Nicolas Fouquet, the courtier who rose too close to the Sun King, until he got severely burnt by the monarch he had attempted to outclass in country homes and banquets.

But the problem with Power is that we already know power corrupts, and French schoolboy swots will also be aware of the Icarus-like fate of its principal figure. So while we await the building of Versailles, a floor plan of which lies on the stage floor (just one example of Christopher Oram's minimalist but always elegant settings), there is rather too much time to look at the half-dozen or so characters drawn from mid-17th-century French courtly life.

Dear seems torn between telling the Fouquet story straight - a man for all seasons run to avarice and sex with the mistresses of those who would destroy him - and exploring the nature of power itself. He would perhaps have been wiser to stick with the story of Fouquet, especially as he is given a winningly cheeky make-over by Robert Lindsay, in a rare return to the stage and a debut at the National.

Barbara Jefford is Anne of Austria, the Queen Mother from hell and, in a very strong cast, Stephen Boxer is the equally conniving Machiavellian Colbert. But as each of these figures has to tell us repeatedly of their intentions, and sometimes even who they are, often in very long speeches, what tension there might have been seems to dissolve. All in all, this is a lengthy tour of the background to the building of Versailles. Like the palace itself, Power is overdecorated and, some would say, not worth the detour.

Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures has been a grand opera, a tiny chamber studio play with songs, and a huge glitzy Broadway musical, but I doubt if even a village amateur director would conceive of it as a parody pantomime. In a co-production between the Donmar and the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Gary Griffin has imposed a mockery of kabuki conventions. Thus, he employs an all-male, multiracial cast but has them send up the characters, especially the women. No visual cliche is left unexplored, although the actors turn in uniformly strong performances. It is as though he envisages kabuki not as it is, but as it might be seen through the eyes of a non-Japanese audience - as a jumble of shrieks, shouts, incomprehensible rituals and weird stock characters.

When you have to fish for cheap laughs by mispronouncing the names of Japanese towns, you've rather missed the point of Sondheim's exquisitely delicate score, which becomes less Japanese as the evening progresses.

Pacific Overtures is not only about the Japanese slowly and willingly allowing themselves to be invaded by the west; it is also about the eternal conflict between the big picture and the details. Sondheim, his collaborator Hugh Wheeler, and John Weidman, who wrote the book on which the show is based, switch focus, now concentrating on a single young woman in a park, now on world economic history. Here we find a director trying to make his name by turning a gentle satire into a circus with a broad humour that betrays the subtlety of thought behind it.

At the Soho Theatre until 26 July, Fin Kennedy's Protection is not so much a play as a fragmented documentary about overworked, underpaid and scantily resourced social workers and the clients they are failing for so many good reasons to support. The author is the son of two social workers and has combined a number of case histories to show that the theory of social aid and rescue is sadly unworkable in Britain's inner cities today.

Like education and national health, the ideals have overtaken the practicalities. Protection's six social workers and their five clients show us that the system simply cannot be sustained; these social workers are unable to deliver any kind of help for fear they will be asked to find even more. In Abigail Morris's agile production we get a brief insight into the relationships between care-workers and clients in a crumbling society. Margot Leicester and Joe Armstrong lead a powerful team through the despair and frustration that this first play impressively chronicles.

Power is in rep at the Cottesloe, National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000) until 2 October

Pacific Overtures is at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (020 7369 1732) until 6 September

Protection is at the Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, London W1 (020 7478 0100) until 26 July

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