Director Neil Armfield denies he told Geoffrey Rush his on-stage touching of a female co-star was becoming “creepy” and says he didn’t see the actor touch her breast in a gratuitous way.
He’s also denied seeing Rush make jokes and comments about Eryn Jean Norvill’s body during rehearsals for the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of King Lear or make gestures in which he pretended to caress her torso and grope her breasts.
Armfield was giving evidence during Rush’s Federal Court defamation trial against a newspaper publisher and journalist over stories about an allegation the actor behaved inappropriately toward his younger co-star.
The Oscar winner denies the claims and argues the Daily Telegraph articles made him out to be a pervert and a sexual predator.
The paper’s publisher, Nationwide News, and journalist Jonathon Moran are pleading a defence of truth and Norvill – who didn’t speak with Moran for the articles – has agreed to give evidence.
Armfield, a long-time friend and collaborator of Rush’s, directed him and Norvill for the production in 2015 and 2016.
He told the court on Thursday if he saw Rush making lewd comments or gestures towards Norvill during rehearsals he would have said: “What are you doing? Stop.”
If she’d come to him with a complaint, Armfield said he would have spoken to Rush before possibly gathering him, Norvill and the stage manager together.
Another of the Telegraph’s allegations, which Rush denies, is he deliberately touched the side of Norvill’s breast during a preview performance in a scene after he carried her body on stage and laid it down.
Norvill played the daughter of Rush’s titular character and, in that scene, she had died.
Armfield said he suspected it would have been impossible for Rush to cradle Norvill’s torso during the scene as directed without touching her breast but he hadn’t seen any “gratuitous action”.
Under cross-examination, he couldn’t recall if that cradling move had been introduced in previews or later in the production.
When defence barrister Tom Blackburn SC put it to Armfield that Rush had traced his hand down the side of Norvill’s torso and her right breast, he said he had no memory of it.
He denied telling Rush his touching of Norvill during the scene was becoming “creepy” and had no recollection of telling him to make it more paternal, as the Daily Telegraph claimed.
The director, who has worked on more than 20 projects with Rush since the 1980s, said he was telling the truth during his evidence and he liked to think both Norvill and Rush were his friends.
Actor Helen Buday, who played Norvill’s sister in the production, also denied seeing Rush make lewd comments or gestures to anyone and said she would have felt a responsibility to say something if she had.
She described a text message where Rush told Norvill he thought about her “more than is socially appropriate”, followed by an emoji with its tongue out, as “delightful” and an example of “good mentoring”.
The judge-only trial continues.