An unscripted melodrama
The evidence has been heard, the verdict awaits
‘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.
Clockwise from top, Geoffrey Rush and Jane Menelaus yesterday; Robyn Nevin; the Norvill family; and Fred Schepisi