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Published on February 26th, 2015 | by Bean

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Wolf Hall Review – Episode 6 “The Master of Phantoms”

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As Peter Kosminsky’s masterful adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall draws to a close, the spring coils tighter and tighter. Opening on a table of lords and ladies headed by Cromwell, the treacherous class bang on the table, demanding their feast, as a bound Queen Anne is served up for their pleasure and his burden. Like the baying of hounds, Cromwell is haunted by the horrors his royal responsibilities bring, but Queen Anne’s position is no longer precarious; her doom is spelled. She deems Cromwell’s pragmatic response to the King’s recent near-death experience a personal betrayal; “Nothing here is personal” says he, trying to believe it.

The Queen clutches at straws; “Those who are made can be unmade” to which he replies “I entirely agree” and retires. The ability to convey humility, defiance and regret in three words can surely be attributed to few modern actors, but Rylance remains peerless in this respect. The endless flow of nuance born upon his face is mesmeric, facilitating all the complexities of Cromwell’s situation as he struggles to do his King’s bidding.

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As Boleyn’s paranoia and panic mount, her behaviour grows worse then ever, and, desperate to reclaim her waning sense of relevance, she lashes out at those closest to her. The problem with superiority, as she has so aptly just pointed out, is the inevitable reversal of fortune that occurs when you have innumerable servants, courtiers and followers, but no genuine friends, no-one truly loyal to you. And so her entourage falters and falls apart, causing her downfall through their indiscretion.

For Cromwell, the job must be done, but he must also square it to himself somehow. In part to assuage his repugnance at being forced to intimidate confessions from these men, he justifies the costs of this operation to himself by claiming the toll for their lifetime of entitlement and cruelty. The distasteful and pitiless mockery of the late Wolsey resurfaces, fuel for the fire, a way to keep the machine going.

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Whilst Cromwell anchors the audience throughout, playing the role of “Master of Phantoms” with obvious reluctance and forbearance, the final chapter of Wolf Hall belongs to Anne. Claire Foy gives a subtly crazed performance, revelling in the torment of her lessers one minute, and practising her pious poses the next, each sorry act moving her closer to her end. As her wide, expectant eyes flit from one unfaithful face to another, Foy grants the audience momentary insights that lift the Queen above her own character flaws.

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One such moment, between Cromwell and Anne, carries particular weight. Thomas visits the Queen at the scene of her house arrest, charged with carrying the message of her imminent trial, or perhaps as a courtesy call to measure her wellbeing. Once the state of things is clear, and he makes to leave, Anne reaches for him, taking hold of his arm. I found these two seconds of honest desperation as genuinely moving as Cromwell does, and the following return to dissembling she chooses as she clasps her hands once again to her breast leaves a bitter taste. Even the false front comes from a real fear for her life, but she simply cannot be authentic, she does not know how; it has never been required of her. He is disappointed, but he understands.

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In these days of oh-so-frequent beheadings in TV drama, (one of my pet peeves) it is to the credit of all involved, but most particularly Foy and Rylance, that Boleyn’s final scene is as appalling as it should be. We don’t require the callous staff douche-bag’s tasteless commentary to alert us to the magnitude of what we are about to witness. Cromwell reaches out for someone at his lowest ebb; as he prepares to watch a woman brutally butchered by his own design, he grasps his son Gregory’s arm. But the distance between father and son remains; this is hardly something he can be proud of his father for.

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The final twist of the knife comes simply and silently, as Cromwell enters the throne room of his sovereign. Even as the kind-hearted man at the crux of Wolf Hall reels from the Queen’s execution, Henry’s true psychopathy shines out unashamedly. He is beatific, beaming at Cromwell in his famous arm-splayed pose, glorying in his freedom, magnanimous in victory.  With chilling slow-motion we behold this monster; we don’t need more than a glance at Cromwell to feel his dismay at his king’s savage nature, but Kosminsky leaves us imprinted with that image of a good man caught in the embrace of a beast.

Review by Nina Clark

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Bean

Director at Nina Clark Music / The Musical Walkabout at Nina Clark Music
Bean is the family nickname of Nina Clark, singer, songwriter and professional musician. Nina's many nerdly passions, aside from music, include Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and all things Whedon. (re. GoT, she has NOT read the books, so please be cool - no spoilers!)
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