I’ve just been doing some research for my course at Stratford this summer – SO EXCITING! – and I came across this. Why is it that people don’t write theatre reviews like this anymore?
We have had nothing so great as the revival of King John. We have had no celebration of English History and English Poetry so worthy of a National Theatre … It is six years since we saw King John, with some seven ragged supernumeraries for the power of England, while that of France, headed by a king in boots a la Louis Quatorze, crawled about the stage with three. What a picture has taken the place of this! There is a line in the tragedy about the alchemist, the sun, which turns with splendour of his precious eye “the meagre cloddy earth to glittering gold.” Art is another alchemist: converting to richest use the meagre resources of the stage. The rude heroic forms of the English past; the gothic and chivalric grandeur of the Middle Age; the woes and wars of a barbarous but an earnest time, with its reckless slendour, its selfish cruelty, and its gloomy suffering: are in this revival realized. … The accoutrements are complete, from the helmet to the spur of each mailed warrior. Not a distinction is missed in the appointments. From citizen to baron, gentleman to knight, herald to man-at-arms, soldier to servant, priest to king, gradations are marked with picturesque exactness, to the eye and to the mind. The scenery has had the same attention. The council room, the field before and after battle, the fortifications of Angiers, the moated and embattled fortress of Northampton, the glitter of the Royal tent, the gloom of Swinstead Abbey; they have all the air of truth, the character of simple and strong fidelity. And above all, in every movement of the tragedy, there is Mind at work, without which wealth of material is nothing. The crows on the stage are instinct with life and passion. Yielding to the impulse of their leaders, they rise to fierce activity or sink into grim repose. These sudden changes are the very picture of that age: its selfish insincerity, its rude devotion, its servile slavery. Men they are not, though with those gallant forms of men, they are machines of war. -John Forster. The Examiner Oct 29, 1842
“We consider that Mr Macready has displayed not only great knowledge and taste; but, what is more praiseworthy, great moderation, in the command of his resources. We have never witnessed a representation in which the ‘getting up’ was in more perfect harmony with the tones of the drama” – The Atlas
“The best praise of this superb spectacle is that it assists materially in carrying on the business of the play … The scenery is not a mere succession of bright prospects and sumptuous interiors; it has a pictorial character in accordance with the movement of the action” – The Athenaeum
Mr Macready has brought before the eyes of his audience an animated picture of those Gothic times which are so splendidly illustrated by the drama. The stage is thronged with the stalwart forms of the middle ages, the clang of battle sounds behind the scenes, massive fortresses bound the horizon. The grouping is admirably managed. The mailed figures now sink into stern tranquility; now, when the martial fire touches them, the rouse from their lethargy and thirst for action. The sudden interruption in the third act to the temporary peace between John and Phillip Augustus was a fine instance of the power of making the stage a living picture. The Englishmen and Frenchmen who had mingled together parted with the rapidity of lightning, the hurried movements, the flashing swords, bespoke the turbulent spirit of the old barons. A quiet mass of glittering accoutrements had suddenly burst into new combinations of animation and energy. – The Times
An embodied picture. … We say a picture, for though composed of a succession of scenes, these form parts of a coherent whole … the pictorial effects harmonizing with the nature of each incident: in a word, the scenes are a mute chorus, presenting in a visible shape those circumstances and comments which it was the office of the chorus to suggest to the audience when the scenic art was in its infancy. …. In the first scene, King John is in the plenitude of his power, enthroned and surrounded by his Barons, hurling defiance to the French King; the Gothic hall, hung with tapestry below, but above showing the bare stone walls, adorned with only a square canopy over the chair of state, and the carved timbers of the roof, exhibiting the rude pomp of elder days. In the next scene, the chivalry of France and England, arrayed in the glittering panoply of war, meet before the gates of Angiers; the loft ramparts and bastions of the town, stretching out in dim perspective along the river’s bank, frown defiance on the rival forces; and while the two Monarchs hold parley with the citizens on the walls, we have full opportunity to note the details of this sumptuous and striking scene. The quaint heraldic devices on the shields and surcoats of the knights enliven with their gaudy hues the glitter of their coats of mail; the regal habiliments of the kings, the flowing robes of the ladies, the parti-coloured habits of the heralds, and the flaunting banners, adding a brighter glow to this warlike pomp: the host of warriors are in frequent action, and the shifting of the throng as each party advance and retire produces new combinations of colour that prevent the eye from being fatigued. In the succeeding scene, the arrival of the Pope’s Legate swells the pageant with the pomp of the Romish Church, and brings new elements of discord into play: the frantic grief of Queen Constance now casts a shade of gloom over the dazzling scene; and the subsequent entrance of King John, defeated and cast down, attended by only a few dejected followers, prepares the way for the catastrophe of Prince Arthur’s death. The contrast of this and the following scenes with those that have gone before is striking to the most careless spectator: John is seen again enthroned, but shorn alike of pomp and power; his abasement before the Pope’s Legate is followed by a second defeat in his own kingdom; his death by poison concluding the tragedy. The management of the shadows of the picture is equally artistical with that of the lights: the lurid atmosphere of the battle-field and the dim moonlight over Swinstead Abbey, precede the pall of night that hangs over the death-scene of the king. – The Spectator