Interview: Taking a Shine to Shakespeare

Geoffrey Rush was an `unknown' actor happily appearing on the Australian stage, until his performance as David Helfgott in `Shine' propelled him to stardom. Now he is back with a stage production, and talks to Liese Spenser about directing a `grab-bag of pop culture'
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Geoffrey Rush is, well, in a rush. His new production starts previewing at the Unicorn Arts Theatre this evening, and he's snatching a hurried break from dress rehearsals to have a lager, smoke some extra-mild fags and explain just what the Oscar-winning star of Shine is doing directing a quasi-Shakespearian comedy in a "rabbit warren" off Leicester Square.

The Popular Mechanicals is loosely based on the artisans of A Midsummer Night's Dream. "The idea was to take the text from Shakespeare and create all the other scenes that you never see in the Dream," explains Rush. "There's no royals and no fairy world, just the mechanicals". So far, so Stoppard. So is this some kind of Midsummer Night's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead? "It's not as literary as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern," he smiles. "This is more from the grab-bag of contemporary pop culture."

Given the play's provenance, The Popular Mechanicals' cultural melange sounds less grab-bag than lucky dip: after a sell-out first run in Sydney in 1987, the comedy enjoyed a revival in 1992 and has since achieved such cult status down under that it has spawned a sequel, Pop Mex II. All of which is old news to Australians, who know Rush primarily for his prolific 20-year theatrical career, rather than his bravura performance as the stuttering pianist David Helfgott in Shine. Brought up in the cultural outback of Queensland ("Tropical. Businessmen in shorts with sweaty armpits"), the seven-year-old Rush was stagestruck when he saw his first vaudeville show. "Some of the tent shows were still doing the regions with full-on Palladium-style proscenium arches made out of canvas," he marvels, "It was before television, and I caught the dying end of that tradition. All that cross-dressing: men as women, women as men, people doing lightning changes on stage ... I just loved that raw theatrical energy. There's been a desire for me to capture that feeling for audiences ever since." At school an "academic and skinny" Rush "mucked around in drama", gravitating towards comic roles. Despite the Antipodean stereotype, the actor believes his need to play the clown was less a reaction to Aussie machismo than a symptom of what he calls a "recognisable global phenomenon"; "If you asked most actors they'd probably say they'd had an experience of feeling like an outsider throughout their childhood or adolescence."

Back in the late Sixties Rush was spotted nude in the university's "tribal rock version of Euripides' Bacchae". He was hired by the director of the newly-formed Queensland Theatre Company. "I must have stood out," he grins. "I did my last exam on the Friday, started work on the Monday."

Three years later, Rush left the company with a sound basic training, but his passion for vaudeville had not disappeared, and he decided to head for Paris to study "le jeu", the art of clowning, at the Jacques Lecoq school of drama. "I knew I didn't want to go to our National Institute, which specialised in much more formal, text-based theatre," he says, "but there was no five-year plan in my mind. I was just attracted by a European notion of theatre and cinema. Us Australians are a long way on the other side of the world and, you know, you kind of want to see what's up north."

Flourishing under Lecoq's more physical approach, Rush discovered what he felt was a more exciting acting style: "Scratch most performers, and you see the true imagination rather than a set of conventions." Studying in Europe, meanwhile, was a heady experience. "Twenty-three impoverished students. In Paris. Highly romantic. I was a dishwasher." He returned home to begin a long and successful stage career playing the likes of Khlestakov in Gogol's A Government Inspector, Poproshin in The Diary of a Madman, even the Fool to Warren Mitchell's King Lear.

Screen roles failed to materialise, but Rush didn't mind. "We were doing lots of pioneering movies about people on the land. Movies starring Bryan Brown and Mel Gibson. Men with big pecs."

Luckily, when a major film role turned up it was the kind of juicy part most actors only dream of. "Shine was the second film that I'd done. The way I work, I knew I couldn't go in with David Helfgott's monologues as something half-baked in my head. They needed a lot of exploration, basically a lot of learning. All of which makes me very flattered when American audiences congratulate me for my improvisation. You know, taxi drivers have the knowledge, actors learn scripts."

The huge success of his performance means that Rush now suffers the occasional "media blitz", but the self-deprecating star claims that "the whole Shine stardom thing still feels like a bit of an out-of-body experience. When I see stuff about me in the newspapers, I look at it as though it's somebody else. There's still something fantastic about the hot centre that you can get, playing eight shows a week to 300 a night for a minimum run of six weeks."

One of the handful of film roles he has accepted is that of Walsingham in a British production of Elizabeth I. "I only came over to the UK to do pieces involving roughs," he says ruefully. "Walsingham was Elizabeth's secretary of state, but basically he was her spymaster, keeping an eye on Catholicism. I like the stories that we have an intellectual perspective on but can redefine ourselves, by using that history as a starting-point. It's great to see how icons come into existence. Acting and directing, you learn a whole load of information by osmosis. You live your life based on Arden footnotes, and make great discoveries on quaint old language and what was funny 400 years ago. To me the parallels are extremely immediate; I never think `Why do we want to see all that old stuff?'. You just have to find the right language for it."

Which is exactly what he aims to do with his other Elizabethan project, The Popular Mechanicals. Rush sees the artisans' performance at the Palace as the equivalent of "getting picked for a play competition and suddenly finding that you're on global television in front of an audience of 12 billion, with an act that really isn't very good. It's the terror of entering into a terrain that you're not equipped for."

Nipping between the set at Shepperton and rehearsals at the Arts Theatre, Rush has come along way since then. With a performance as Javer in Billy August's new film version of Les Miserables (opposite Liam Neeson and Uma Thurman) already in the can, it looks as though his star will continue to rise. "In the Seventies in Britain, I spent my holidays here bumming around, seeing a lot of theatre and living in squats." he remembers. "Now I'm staying in a posh hotel. Next time around, who knows?" And with that, the lanky figure disappears, to pour some vaudevillian oil into those mechanicals.

`The Popular Mechanicals' plays at The Arts Theatre, Great Newport St, London WC2, from tomorrow to 24 January (0171-836 3334)