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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

But there's no danger/it's a profession, a career/ though we could be erased/ with just a word in Cardinal Wolsey's ear

So I'm watching Henry VIII, enjoying it but feeling somewhat underwhelmed (feels a little bit like it was assembled from bits and pieces of other history plays) by both the actual play and the performances.

But then, towards the end of Act III, the actor playing Cardinal Wolsey (Timothy West) just blew me away. For most of the film, he's underplayed the part, coming off as scheming and manipulative. Then his former servant Cromwell comes to visit him after his arrest. At first, Wolsey plays at the penitent great man, rehabilitated and ready to return to society (Nixon comes to mind as a good example). All very weighty and eloquent.

And then Cromwell says that he'll serve the king, but he'll keep his prayers for Cardinal Wolsey. And for the first moment in the play, we see Wolsey as vulnerable. The text bears out this interpretation: the language gets simpler and there are a lot more pauses and breaks. West keeps it understated, but you suddenly see his sadness. He's spent his whole life raising and destroying people based on his needs, and he only now realizes the power and beauty of friendship.

It lends an amazing power to his closing lines: "Had I but serv'd God with half the zeal/I serv'd my king, he would not in mine age/ Have left me naked to mine enemies." Rather reminiscent of the Kissinger quote about how much Nixon could have accomplished if someone had loved him. Just an amazing moment of empathy that staggers me as a would-be actor and writer.

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