An un­scripted melo­drama

The ev­i­dence has been heard, the ver­dict awaits

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER - ROSE­MARY NEILL SE­NIOR WRITER

‘I was at the bot­tom of the rung … and Ge­of­frey was def­i­nitely at the top’ ERYN JEAN NORVILL AC­TRESS AND WIT­NESS

The star-stud­ded defama­tion trial brought by Os­car-win­ning ac­tor Ge­of­frey Rush against The Daily Tele­graph con­cluded yes­ter­day, and at times there seemed to be as many fraught scenes play­ing out in Syd­ney’s fed­eral court­room 18C as there were on the city’s the­atre stages.

The room, on the 18th level of the CBD high-rise that houses the Fed­eral Court, is de­signed in muted tones: its beige car­pet, padded walls and wood pan­elling are de­signed to re­tard noise and pro­mote a sense of calm.

But there was noth­ing muted about the roil­ing emo­tions, sharp gen­er­a­tional ten­sions, al­le­ga­tions of com­plic­ity with in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­iour and bruis­ing cros­sex­am­i­na­tion that char­ac­terised this trial.

The high-pro­file case pit­ted the tes­ti­mony of one of the na­tion’s big­gest film and the­atre stars — Rush, 67 — against that of 34year-old Eryn Jean Norvill, a ris­ing ac­tress largely un­known out­side the­atre cir­cles.

Among the roll­call of film and the­atre lu­mi­nar­ies who ap­peared in court on Rush’s be­half were two-time Os­car nom­i­nee Judy Davis, the­atre leg­end Robyn Nevin, film­maker Fred Schep­isi, the­atre di­rec­tor Neil Arm­field and 85-year-old ear­ring-sport­ing Hol­ly­wood agent Fred Speck­tor. The three-week trial has fea­tured wit­nesses who wept, sang and im­i­tated a wink­ing emoji and Jack Ni­chol­son while in the wit­ness box.

Then there was the Tele­graph’s 11th-hour bid to call a mys­tery wit­ness who came for­ward af­ter the trial be­gan. Ac­cord­ing to the trial judge, Michael Wigney, the woman the court dubbed Wit­ness X had worked along­side Rush on a the­atre pro­duc­tion years ago and had made (untested) al­le­ga­tions of a “sex­ual” na­ture against him.

How­ever, Jus­tice Wigney re­jected the news­pa­per’s ap­pli­ca­tion to call this wit­ness on the grounds it was “ex­tremely” late, would de­lay the trial for months and cause “egre­gious prej­u­dice” to Rush. He said the ac­tor’s re­quest for a speedy trial had been “frus­trated” and “im­peded” by the Tele­graph’s “un­sat­is­fac­tory” ap­proach to the case.

Rush launched defama­tion pro­ceed­ings against the Tele­graph last De­cem­ber, one week af­ter the news­pa­per pub­lished front-page ar­ti­cles re­port­ing that he was the sub­ject of a com­plaint of in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­iour re­lat­ing to a 2015-16 Syd­ney The­atre Com­pany pro­duc­tion of King Lear.

Rush de­nies any wrong­do­ing and says the Tele­graph’s ar­ti­cles falsely painted him as a “per­vert” and “sex­ual preda­tor”.

The news­pa­per is de­fend­ing the ar­ti­cles on the ba­sis its claims are true.

One of few ac­tors to have won Academy, Emmy and Tony awards, Rush played King Lear — the Ever­est of Shake­spearean roles — in the STC pro­duc­tion, while Norvill played Cordelia, his youngest daugh­ter. Af­ter King Lear wrapped up, Norvill made a con­fi­den­tial com­plaint to the STC that Rush had al­legedly ha­rassed her dur­ing the show’s run. She was not named in and did not con­trib­ute to the Tele­graph’s sto­ries but was iden­ti­fied months later. Dur­ing the trial, the Shine and

Pi­rates of the Caribbean star spent three days in the wit­ness box and said the pe­riod since the ar­ti­cles were pub­lished had been “the worst 11 months of my life”.

Norvill, who has won Syd­ney The­atre and Green Room awards for her the­atre roles, had not spo­ken pub­licly about her com­plaint to the STC un­til she stepped into the wit­ness box on day seven of the trial.

If the Tele­graph’s key wit­ness was in­tim­i­dated by the fact Rush had al­ready rolled out the big guns of Aus­tralian screen and the­atre in­dus­tries to back his ver­sion of events or as char­ac­ter wit­nesses, it didn’t show. Tak­ing mea­sured in­takes of breath, Norvill looked poised and di­rected most of her an­swers to Jus­tice Wigney.

Her most se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tion was that Rush “de­lib­er­ately” ran his fin­gers over her right breast as she por­trayed the dead Cordelia dur­ing a pre­view of King Lear at Syd­ney’s Roslyn Packer The­atre. She told a packed court­room: “I was on stage with my eyes closed play­ing a dead body, so I prob­a­bly felt very trapped. Be­cause I couldn’t do or say (any­thing) … I prob­a­bly also felt fright­ened … I would have gone on high alert af­ter that around Ge­of­frey.”

She claimed that af­ter this per­for­mance, the pro­duc­tion’s di­rec­tor, Arm­field, gave Rush an oral note and sug­gested the scene should be per­formed in a more “pa­ter­nal” way as it had be­come “un­clear and creepy”.

When asked whether he said this, Arm­field, now co-di­rec­tor of the Ade­laide Arts Fes­ti­val, tes­ti­fied: “I have no mem­ory of that.”

(King Lear cast mem­ber Colin Moody had agreed to tes­tify for the Tele­graph by video link about the al­leged oral note. But Jus­tice Wigney ruled this out, say­ing the news­pa­per’s ap­pli­ca­tion to call Moody as a wit­ness came too late.)

Norvill tes­ti­fied that Rush stroked the skin of her lower back as they waited to go on stage, called her “yummy” and “scrump­tious” and reg­u­larly made hour­glass or breast-grop­ing ges­tures to­wards her.

She said she felt “be­lit­tled, em­bar­rassed” and “shamed” af­ter he per­formed a comic skit over her torso dur­ing re­hearsals, which in­cluded a breast-grop­ing ges­ture.

Arm­field and two cast mem­bers, Nevin and He­len Bu­day, de­nied they saw Rush be­have in­ap­pro­pri­ately. But a younger cast mem­ber, Mark Win­ter, tes­ti­fied that dur­ing a pre­view per­for­mance he “saw Ge­of­frey’s hand cup­ping around the bot­tom of EJ’s breast, which was some­thing that I hadn’t seen be­fore on stage”. Win­ter said he had an “unim­peded view”.

While he tes­ti­fied that Rush touched Norvill’s left breast, Norvill said it was her right breast. Win­ter said he saw Rush per­form the skit that ended in “a boob­squeez­ing” ges­ture over the ac­tress’s torso as she lay prone on the floor dur­ing re­hearsals, de­pict­ing the dead Cordelia.

Rush em­phat­i­cally de­nies all th­ese al­le­ga­tions. As the plain­tiff, he was up first in the wit­ness box, and spoke of his dev­as­ta­tion at read­ing the ar­ti­cle head­lined “King Leer”, while his wife, ac­tress Jane Menelaus, and adult son were home with him in Mel­bourne. “I felt as though some­one had poured lead into my head. I went into a kind of, ‘This can’t be hap­pen­ing’. I was numb,” he said.

At­tend­ing court with Menelaus by his side, Rush said he felt “de­monised by un­truths” once the ar­ti­cles were pub­lished. He put on a “brave front” for his wife and chil­dren, but felt “dis­traught by the way the story was run­ning off the rails”. He be­came tear­ful when de­scrib­ing how he men­tally pre­pared for the cru­cial scene in King Lear — which is cen­tral to Norvill’s al­le­ga­tions — in which the age­ing monarch car­ries the dead Cordelia across the stage. “I al­ways imag­ined that it was my own real-life daugh­ter, (that) she’d been hit by a bus on the street near where we live in Cam­ber­well,” Rush said.

Video of the rel­e­vant scene was played twice to the court.

Bruce McClin­tock SC, one of three bar­ris­ters who ap­peared for Rush, said the Tele­graph’s “reck­lessly ir­re­spon­si­ble” ar­ti­cles had “smashed” his client’s rep­u­ta­tion and re­duced his in­come from $1.5 mil­lion in the five months be­fore the ar­ti­cles were pub­lished late last year to $44,000 since then.

Dur­ing cross-ex­am­i­na­tion the ebul­lient bar­ris­ter — who last year rep­re­sented crick­eter Chris Gayle in his suc­cess­ful defama­tion ac­tion against Fair­fax Me­dia — ac­cused Norvill of telling “a whole pack of dis­gust­ing lies” to “blacken and smear” his client.

Rush’s lawyers main­tain the breast-touch­ing in­ci­dent did not hap­pen; that a com­mit­ted ac­tor such as Rush would not have un­der­mined one of the most fa­mous scenes in the the­atri­cal canon, in front of a live au­di­ence.

Also rep­re­sent­ing Rush, bar­ris­ter Sue Chrysan­thou said Norvill’s claims must be weighed against “the sea of ab­sent wit­nesses”. She said the ac­tress’s ev­i­dence was “rife with con­tra­dic­tions, in­con­sis­ten­cies and re­cent in­ven­tions”.

But Tom Black­burn, se­nior coun­sel for the Tele­graph, said Rush’s lawyers had failed to ex­plain what mo­tive Norvill would have had for in­vent­ing claims against Rush. She had been “des­per­ate” to stay out of the lime­light and had not spo­ken to jour­nal­ists about her al­le­ga­tions. “(There is) ab­so­lutely noth­ing in th­ese pro­ceed­ings for Ms Norvill ex­cept stress and anx­i­ety,” he said.

In­ter­est­ingly, the trial, which has at­tracted in­ter­na­tional me­dia cov­er­age, has ex­posed a gen­er­a­tional fault line be­tween the older and younger ac­tors work­ing on the STC pro­duc­tion and be­yond. Win­ter, like Norvill, is in his 30s, while those who tes­ti­fied on Rush’s be­half were aged over 55.

Af­ter Norvill tes­ti­fied, many ac­tors and di­rec­tors from her gen­er­a­tion, in­clud­ing De­clan Greene, Leti­cia Cac­eres and Adena Ja­cobs, posted Face­book or Twit­ter mes­sages of sup­port un­der the hash­tag #Is­tand­withEJ.

Asked why she didn’t com­plain about Rush dur­ing the pro­duc­tion, she told the court: “I was at the bot­tom of the rung in terms of the hi­er­ar­chy and Ge­of­frey was def­i­nitely at the top … His power was in­tim­i­dat­ing … Ev­ery­one else didn’t seem to have a prob­lem about it (his be­hav­iour) … I was look­ing at a room that was com­plicit. My di­rec­tor didn’t seem to have a prob­lem with it, so I felt quashed in terms of my abil­ity to find al­lies.”

She said Nevin, who played the Fool in the show, had “al­ways been kind to me”. But she added that “we’re from dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions … She en­abled that be­hav­iour, as did ev­ery­one in that room.”

Chrysan­thou said Norvill had “thrown a whole lot of peo­ple un­der the bus” by say­ing ev­ery­one in the re­hearsal room was com­plicit.

The court heard Norvill and Rush had been friends be­fore King Lear got un­der way. They ex­changed racy emails and texts start­ing in 2014, and Norvill used pun­ning nick­names for the ac­tor such as “Jet Lee Thrust” and “God of generic lust”. Un­der cros­sex­am­i­na­tion, she ad­mit­ted th­ese nick­names could be seen as “in­tel­lec­tu­ally flir­ta­tious”.

Rush, who said he might have called Norvill “yummy” and “scrump­tious”, was cross-ex­am­ined about a text he sent to her six months af­ter King Lear fin­ished. The text said he was think­ing of her “more than is so­cially ap­pro­pri­ate” and in­cluded a wink­ing emoji with its tongue out and the sign-off, “Gre­gar­i­ous Raunch”.

The ac­tor de­nied the text in­di­cated he was at­tracted to Norvill and likened the emoji to a Grou­cho Marx joke. “If there’d been a Grou­cho emoji, I would have punc­tu­ated with that,” he said.

While Rush’s solic­i­tor filed an af­fi­davit in April claim­ing the per­former had be­come “vir­tu­ally house­bound”, Rush agreed in court that he had vis­ited Lon­don, Um­bria, the US and Ade­laide this year.

As this event­ful trial drew to a close yes­ter­day, the Os­car win­ner’s lawyers said there was “a sig­nif­i­cant risk” he might not work again be­cause of the Tele­graph’s ar­ti­cles and was seek­ing mil­lions of dol­lars in dam­ages. How­ever, Black­burn ar­gued that Rush had failed to pro­vide any ev­i­dence that of­fers of work had dried up or that he was un­able to work.

Jus­tice Wigney has re­served his de­ci­sion to a date to be de­ter­mined early next year. What­ever he de­cides, his judg­ment will pro­vide an­other mo­ment of drama in this high-stakes defama­tion saga.

GETTY IMAGES, AAP

Clock­wise from top, Ge­of­frey Rush and Jane Menelaus yes­ter­day; Robyn Nevin; the Norvill fam­ily; and Fred Schep­isi

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