Geoffrey Rush’s Defamation Trial Becomes a #MeToo Reckoning for Australia

“We are in the middle of this social movement, the middle of this social conversation and here is a case that is going to test how far we’ve come,” said Zahra Newman, 31, an actress who starred in a recent production of “The Book of Mormon.”

The trial, she said, is exposing a generational shift that “is challenging for older generations of artists who just think, ‘Get over it, toughen up.’”

Given the nation’s strict defamation laws, some experts believe the Rush trial is also having a dampening effect on #MeToo.

“This case has done more than anything to slow down the #MeToo movement,” said Michael Bradley, a Sydney-based media lawyer. “There were a lot of stories being prepared in various media organizations ready to run that got killed.”

In the United States, public figures suing for defamation must prove that the allegations made against them are false and were published with malice. In Australia, by contrast, the onus is on the publisher to prove that the allegations are true.

“Australian media is incredibly reluctant to make serious accusations against public figures because defamation laws can be used to stymie public debate,” said Matt Collins, a Victoria-based defamation lawyer.

The Daily Telegraph articles accused Mr. Rush of acting inappropriately toward an unidentified actress, later revealed to be Eryn Jean Norvill, during a 2015-16 Sydney Theatre Company production of “King Lear.” One story was accompanied by a photograph of Mr. Rush in character and “King Leer” as the headline.

Ms. Norvill, testifying before a packed gallery last week, said that Mr. Rush made “groping” and “cupping” gestures toward her breasts during rehearsals, “raising his eyebrows, bulging his eyes, smiling, licking his lips.”

In a critical scene, when King Lear grieves over Cordelia’s dead body, Ms. Norvill stated that Mr. Rush “deliberately” stroked her breast, a claim corroborated by another actor, Mark Winter, who was on stage.

“At the time 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, or move,” Ms. Norvill said.

Asked why she did not raise a formal complaint, Ms. Norvill said that the consequences of speaking out as a junior member of the cast would have been “catastrophic.”

“I was at the bottom of the rung in terms of hierarchy, and Geoffrey was definitely at the top,” she told the court. She added that “his power was intimidating” and that the other members of the production were “complicit” in turning a blind eye.

Deb Verhoeven of the University of Technology Sydney, who studies gender inequity, said that the Australian theater industry was “a small world, literally.”

“If you speak up,” Professor Verhoeven said, “you will suffer the reputational consequences more severely than you might in other places or other similar industries.”

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