The Sydney Opera House may not have audiences back in its theatres yet, but it is now using the Joan Sutherland Theatre as a Digital Stage, and is currently streaming a performance of The Tap Pack recorded there. The NT at Home program delivers another top-notch play, with James Graham’s political drama This House, which received 5-star reviews in the UK. And grab the chance to see the fascinating documentary In the Company of Actors which follows the rehearsal process as Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and fellow cast members from the Sydney Theatre Company’s 2004 production of Hedda Gabler reunite ahead of the 2006 season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.

Sydney Opera House, From Our House to Yours: The Tap Pack
The Tap Pack performing in the Sydney Opera House Studio in 2018. Photograph © Daniel Boud

On March 23, the Sydney Opera House closed its doors due to coronavirus restrictions. Since then the theatres inside the world-famous venue have been dark except for a single ghost light installed on each stage.

A digital program called From Our House to Yours began on April 1, with the SOH streaming concerts, talks and other performances that had previously been recorded. Then on May 9, Emma Pask and her band performed live from the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, reconfigured as the SOH’s new Digital Stage so that live performances can be streamed to audiences.

The big difference is that the 1500-seat venue is all but empty apart from the crew operating and filming the show; instead the audience is watching on screen at home.

The Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House has currently been reconfigured to the Digital Stage. Photo © Daniel Boud

The next group invited to perform on the SOH’s Digital Stage was The Tap Pack – an Australian outfit that brings a modern take to the tap dancing wizardry of the legendary Rat Pack, which included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jnr.

Performing in slick suits, the energetic group infuses tape dancing with swing music and comic banter, and has built an international following. They were touring the US when COVID-19 hit and the tour had to be cut short – which meant they were on-hand when the SOH called.

The Tap Pack enjoyed a smash hit season in the SOH Studio in 2018. For their Digital Stage performance, they have created a stripped-back version of the 2018 show, featuring four performers instead of five, and recorded music instead of the usual live band. The stage is essentially bare and the choreography has been reworked to maintain the required social distancing, with the foursome using three-step stairs, stools and sticks in their toe-tapping, finger-snapping routines. 

Directed by Nigel Turner-Carroll (who wrote the show with Jesse Rasmussen, Jordan Pollard and Thomas J Egan), the new 45-minute version is performed by Cameron Boxall, Egan, Mark Hill and Sean Sinclair (who sports glinting golden tap shoes).

Filmed from the auditorium and the stage, with close-ups on their feet, occasional shots from behind the performers reveal the huge empty auditorium. It feels strange and sad – as it does when the four dancers finish a routine, panting a little with their hands held high, only to be met with absolute silence. But we’re with them, applauding at home.

NT at Home: This House
Charles Edwards as Jack Weatherill in This House. Photograph © Johan Persson

The latest goodie from NT at Home is the NT Live screening of James Graham’s engrossing political drama This House – which examines the workings of British politics in the 1970s.

The play had two sold-out runs at the National Theatre, where it premiered in 2012. In 2013, it screened in cinemas as part of NT Live, then in 2016 it was revived for a West End transfer.

This House records the struggle of the Labour government of 1974 – 1979 to survive. Graham focuses on the tactics of The Whips’ Office at a time when infighting and backstabbing rings throughs the corridors of Westminster. The whips are the political staff who try to round up their respective MPs for an impending vote. At the time, Labour was clinging onto power by its finger nails and Graham has great fun showing the determined, wily and sometimes downright devious methods the whips resort to, with a screwdriver making an appearance, and the ceremonial mace becoming a weapon at one point.

Reviewing the West End season in The Guardian, Michael Billington said: “…by focusing firmly on the Labour and Tory whips’ offices, Graham brilliantly captures the daily machinations of politics. With Labour facing firstly a hung parliament and then a slender majority, we see the whips coming into their own.”

“Deals that were to have a lasting effect are done on devolution to get the votes of minority parties. There is grotesque comedy about the sight of the sick and dying, along with young mothers, being rushed in to vote so that the whips’ office turns into ‘an A&E-cum-daycare centre’.”

Ben Brantley agreed, saying in his 2013 New York Times review: “This is a governing body ruled not by a constitution but by ceremony and, you should pardon the phrase, gentlemen’s agreement. And the wily bending and flexing of unwritten rules, while accommodating centuries-old ritual, turns out to be great spectator sport.”

Directed by Jeremy Herrin, the production faithfully recreates the rituals of daily life at the House of Commons, while having the members sing and dance to Stephen Warbeck’s music on occasion.

Billington described This House as “a thrilling play that both relives history and transcends it.” Running two hours and 40 minutes, it is available to stream via NT at Home from Thursday May 28 at 7pm UK time (Friday May 29 at 4am AEST) until June 4.

Sydney Theatre Company: In the Company of Actors
Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving in a scene from In the Company of Actors

In 2004, Cate Blanchett played Hedda Gabler for Sydney Theatre Company in a new adaptation of Ibsen’s classic play by her husband Andrew Upton. I recall there being such demand for tickets that reviewers were only given one ticket to opening night instead of the usual pair.

Directed by Robyn Nevin, with a cast that also included Annie Byron, Justine Clarke, Julie Hamilton, Hugo Weaving, Anthony Weigh and Aden Young, it proved to be a stunning, febrile production charged by Blanchett’s electrifying performance.

“Blanchett prowls the stage with a splendid combination of restless energy and helpless languor. She is like a beautiful but dangerous animal … it is marvellous to watch,” wrote John McCallum in his review for The Australian.

“Blanchett’s sensuality, presence, wit and vocal command are such that the complexity and startling paradoxes of Hedda – the anger and the ennui, the desperation and the desire, the affection and contempt – become completely natural and fascinating to behold,” said the Sydney Morning Herald.

In 2006, the original cast and artistic team returned to revive the production for a season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.

Ian Darling (a former Chair of STC), directed a captivating behind-the-scenes documentary called In the Company of Actors about the process of recreating the play for his company Shark Island Productions. Darling gave STC permission to screen the documentary for free during May, as the company reached out digitally to its audience during the COVID-19 lockdown. There was so much interest that Darling has extended free access until June 14.

Following the company from the start of rehearsals in Sydney to opening night at BAM, In the Company of Actors provides a fascinating insight into the acting process. The rehearsal and performance footage is accompanied by interviews with  cast members, as well as Nevin, Upton and the creative team including composer Alan John.

We learn why Blanchett and Weaving agreed to be in a play both had been hesitant about performing in previously. We hear how each actor approached their role, and how returning to a play they had already performed in before, with the same ensemble of actors, allowed them to deepen their characterisation.

Upton explains why he decided to shift the weight of the play from scandal to entrapment, while Nevin discusses the impact of hearing the 19th-century classic through the prism of a contemporary voice.

Blanchett is as intelligent and eloquent as you’d expect, saying at one point: “I think a lot of people are terrified by Hedda because she’s a great, destructive snowball – but she’s also terrified of herself.”

It’s incredibly poignant to hear Clarke talk about how much she loves acting and needs to act, and Upton discussing how crucial theatre is to society, knowing that live theatre is not happening right now because of COVID-19. The buzzy scenes in New York also have a hugely emotional resonance given the devastating toll that the coronavirus has taken on the city “that never sleeps”.

In the Company of Actors celebrates the act of making theatre. If you haven’t seen it before, I recommend it. As STC Artistic Director Kip Williams says in a video introduction on the STC website, it’s “such a beautiful ride”.

In the Company of Actors can be freely accessed via the STC website until June 14.