In Geoffrey Rush case, it’s easy to forget who is on trial

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The case centres on a breast-touching incident Norvill said happened during the scene where her character, Cordelia, is dead, and her grief-stricken father, Lear, as played by Rush, cradles her lifeless body. The scene is one of the most tragic in the canon – Lear’s grief is worsened by guilt over the way he has treated his daughter, banishing her after she refused to lavish him publicly with praise.

Some of Rush’s co-stars gave evidence earlier in the week that they saw nothing, not during that scene on stage and not in the rehearsal room, where Norvill said Rush carried on with sexist horseplay, including a mimed boob-squeezing gesture that humiliated her.

Geoffrey Rush heads into court with his legal counsel on Wednesday.

Geoffrey Rush heads into court with his legal counsel on Wednesday.Credit:Jessica Hromas

Norvill says “everyone in that room” “enabled” Rush’s behaviour, but said nothing, including the acclaimed actress Robyn Nevin, whom she counts as a friend.

“We’re from different generations, maybe we have different ideas about what is culturally appropriate in the workplace,” Norvill said of Nevin.

One of the most powerful impressions from the trial is the generational divide in it. On one side are Rush and his contemporaries, all older, powerful, established theatre and Hollywood figures. On the other is Norvill, young, unknown outside theatre circles, and unwillingly thrown into what has become a de facto trial of her truthfulness, even though she never wanted the complaint public and never co-operated with the tabloid stories that made it so.

But still, the law operates a certain way and the facts about her breast had to be established. That was what Thursday was largely devoted to.

Geoffrey Rush opposite Eryn Jean Norvill during a rehearsal for King Lear.

Geoffrey Rush opposite Eryn Jean Norvill during a rehearsal for King Lear.

A young actor who played Edgar in the Lear production, Mark Leonard Winter, loped into court in black jeans, with something to say about the breast.

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He gave evidence that he saw Rush touch it one night. He believes it was towards the beginning of the show’s run, but apologised because “my sense of time while in the theatre goes a little bit out the window”.

The case, with its queue of intense and theatrical witnesses, one of whom sang show tunes in the box, has done little to dispel stereotypes about luvvies.

“I saw Geoffrey’s hand cupping around the bottom of EJ’s breast, which was something that I hadn’t seen before on stage,” Winter told the court.

Tom Blackburn, SC, for the Telegraph, asked where on the breast the hand was exactly.

“The nipple was not covered,” Winter said, ponderously. “It was sort of more of a cupped position. It’s a little bit tricky to describe. I guess I would say, the side and under. Not, like, a squeeze, if you will.”

Then he gestured, his hand held up against an invisible, hypothetical breast, as the contents of the court – lawyers, actors, journalists and the curious public – looked on.

“Do the gesture again?” the judge requested.

He did.

Blackburn asked how long the breast-cupping went on for. “It was long enough for me to have series of thoughts that took me outside the actions of the play,” Winter said.

Under cross-examination by Bruce McClintock, SC, for Rush, it became apparent Winter said Rush touched the left breast, whereas Norvill herself said he had touched the right breast.

“The gesture you describe would be quite impossible if she was in that position,” McClintock told Winter, stabbing his index finger in the air. “Answer my questions. It would be quite impossible, wouldn’t it?”

Winter said: “I can say unequivocally that his hand touched her breast.”

By this stage, you had quite forgotten the breast belonged to a person.

After Winter left the stand came the expert witnesses. Two of them had been flown in from the United States.

There was Fred Specktor, Rush’s 85-year-old agent, whose client roll reads like an Oscars nomination list: Gene Hackman, Jeremy Irons, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren. You could picture him on a terrace bar at the Chateau Marmont, in dark glasses, with a martini. All his actors were big stars, he said, who got paid big bucks, “in American dollars”. Rush was in their league.

Next came Robin Russell, a long-time showbiz lawyer who gave evidence about how studios assess risk and bankability. Speaking about Hollywood, she said “everything is #MeToo there”.

“Right now it’s a huge cloud. I have never seen anything like it … a lot of people are being injured on both sides who shouldn’t.”

Earlier, before proceedings started, one woman in the public seats peered around the room, before leaning in to her neighbour.” Is the woman in here, the actress?” she whispered.

No, her neighbour replied, she is not here today.

Jacqueline is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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