And, as even Canberra locks down, so do all the shows. The Melbourne Theatre Company shuts down its production of Jackie and at almost the same instant we discovered that the Brisbane production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in November is not going to happen. It was ironic because Queensland was the only place not in lockdown on account of the Covid virus but who was to say what Delta storm might not arrive up north? The cancelling of Wagner’s Nibelung saga was an especial blow to many people around the country because Wagner’s 15-hour total work of art remains the legendary live theatre experience. Of course the punter for a tiny fraction of the price of a Ring ticket could get hold of some of the Ring cycles to watch on the small screen. Decades ago the Patrice Chéreau Ring – the one that followed Shaw’s sense of the Ring as an allegory of capitalism – was shown by the BBC (and the ABC here) in hour-long parts and it was a revelation with the great New Zealand bass Sir Donald MacIntyre – the first Anglo Saxon to sing at Bayreuth – as Wotan and with Dame Gwyneth Jones, the great Welsh singer-actress, as Brunnhilde under the baton of Pierre Boulez with his nervy intensity, his feeling for clarity and pace rather than tumult and smoky thundering slowness. Or you can watch the Met Ring with Bryn Terfel and Deborah Voigt directed by Robert Lepage with his tumbling Rhine water machine. These things are worthy endeavours – as is listening to Solti’s Ring with Birgit Nilsson, electrifyingly produced by the great John Culshaw and an ideal introduction – but nothing touches a live performance. It’s as if the excitement of Wagner is built into being part of that live experience, like an AFL grand final or a Boxing Day test at the MCG.
At the same time as with televised sport, including sport without an audience, we remain grateful to the TV streamers. The concentration on shows about people gathered together in a particular place is enough to make you think there’s a symbolic relation between the TV drama and the idea of quarantine.
The White Lotus set in a Hawaiian spa will repay the energy of anyone who is open to its hectic lightning comedy. There are listless Gen Z girls and middle-aged men who think they have terrible diseases and an Australian spa manager who is all dutiful servitude until things go haywire. He’s brilliantly played by Murray Bartlett and it’s in his voice that we hear the quotation from Tennyson’s ‘The Lotus Eaters’.
But White Lotus is a brilliant cavalcade of well-off Americans taking it easy. There’s a superb performance from Connie Britton as a power lady and Jennifer Coolidge – Stiffler’s Mom in days of yore – plays a woman who lives for massage and has mixed feelings about the mother whose ashes she wants to scatter. If you’re open to its mordancy and its moodiness White Lotus is a wonder. However, when it comes to Nine Perfect Strangers everything goes into reverse. This is the new Nicole Kidman vehicle and it’s scripted by David E. Kelley with whom she worked on the very formidable Big Little Lies. Like that riveting depiction of suburban domesticity and domestic violence, Nine Perfect Strangers is adapted from a novel by the great Australian trashmeister Liane Moriarty but unlike its predecessors Kidman is not co-producing with that powerhouse of dramatic savvy Reese Witherspoon and it shows.
Nine Perfect Strangers is shot in Australia (in fact at Byron) at its most green and luxurious but the direction and the general ambience invokes the lamest traditions we have.
Nicole plays the semi-Russian-sounding presiding guru of some kind of wellness centre and it is one of the most ghastly performances she has ever perpetrated on the world. And don’t get me wrong: the Nicole Kidman of Gus Van Sant’s To Die For is an actress of genius to place with the young Maggie Smith and in all manner of things – Batman, Paddington, and yes, Big Little Lies – she is fine but when she’s bad, she’s really bad.
And Nine Perfect Strangers is the purest piffle. A distinguished mob of actors, each one of them playing haunted and assailed characters, has been selected to suffer the glories of Nicole’s treatment. Michael Shannon (the Mossad chief in The Little Drummer Girl with Florence Pugh) is married to Asher Keddie and they’re haunted by the suicide of their son. The great Melissa McCarthy – who, God knows, does not deserve material as threadbare as this – plays a bestselling novelist who’s hit a losing streak. Bobby Cannavale acting like a titan (but what’s the point?) has flashbacks of a great past and a great game. The patients are dispatched into the wilds of the palpably lush verdancy of the bush in order to forage and strange and disturbing things come to pass.
Nicole has a staff who pass on secrets to her and the whole of Nine Perfect Strangers it has to be admitted has a sort of deliciously horrible quality as you watch Kidman, in a performance which should only be witnessed by consenting adults in private, lording it in her preposterous accent over a notably distinguished mob of actors. Throughout the show, she looks like a long, flat white streak of bogusness and it cannot have been unmitigated fun for her peers that she apparently stayed in character throughout the shoot which sounds like a terrible misalliance of Method technique. At the end of the third episode the Kidman character is subjected to a trauma of her own but, oh my God, how she rides it, with such wine and such revelry and with such a sacramental sense of specialness.
It’s not a crime against humanity but Nine Perfect Strangers is such froth, such bubble, such pretentious flapdoodle. It represents, at some extremity, the downside of what is pretty clearly a renaissance in the streamer phenomenon. It makes perfect sense that every so often we’re going to get a turkey like this but it’s a bit of a pity given that the alliance between Nicole Kidman and the bottomlessly shrewd Reese Witherspoon looked like such a winner.
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