Costume and Identity: A reflection upon The Geoffrey Rush Exhibition

The Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection presents The Extraordinary Shapes of Geoffrey Rush, an exhibition. At the Arts Centre Melbourne, Gallery One, 6th July – 27th October 2013


Geoffrey Rush is an actor with a thorough grounding in the art of theatre making. He has clowned, acted, directed and written for more than forty years. Featured on stage and screen, here and abroad, he has created legions of diverse characters and memorable film moments.

In the process he has received many accolades, including: Four academy awards nominations (with one win), three Bafta’s, two Golden Globe’s, four Screen Actors Guild Awards, an Emmy, a Tony, a Helpmann, two Green Room Awards, the AFI’s Raymond Longford Award and The Australian of the Year 2012.

He is also the only Australian to have won the “triple crown of acting”, an Academy award, an Emmy Award, and a Tony Award. Sure seems like enough to keep one young man busy and out of trouble!

It is this depth of experience and passion for his craft that is evident in his contribution to The Extraordinary Shapes of Geoffrey Rush exhibition, offering a rare insight into the wonderful world of the mechanics of this working actors mind. For me, of particular interest and that which I wish to discuss here, are the snippets of insight regarding the influence of costume in his development of character.

Curated and presented by The Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection in collaboration with Rush, The Extraordinary Shapes of Geoffrey Rush is yet another outstanding exhibition bound to be added to their list of popular successes.

Covering 200 years of performance history and consisting of approximately 510,000 items, housed in vaults under the grassy knoll between The Arts Centre spire and Hamer Hall, The Performing Arts Collection is highly significant, documenting our live performing arts history. Whilst the collection has been relatively unknown to date, its profile is growing through the passion and guidance of The Arts Centre Collections team and high-profile advocates such as Barry Humphries and Geoffrey Rush. In recent years the collections team have produced and toured highly successful exhibits celebrating some of our iconic artists such as Kylie, Nick Cave and AC/DC.

As you enter the exhibition one of the first things you encounter is a film montage of a selection of Rush’s work. A highly enjoyable creation, I particularly appreciated the manner in which links were created between each clip, focusing on a particular aspect of performance common to each work e.g. laughter, spitting, emotion, kisses, tenderness,  welcomes, gun craft, and fire!, …

Seeing each character and film presented in this rapid, linked chain of images showcased the diversity of Rush as a performer but also brought home the humanity and normality of the individual. It highlighted the nature of this craft that takes a person and transforms them through mannerism, posture and voice but also costume, setting, script, soundtrack and cinematography to create entirely different identities.

“for him, the key to a character’s personality is often found in specific shapes of their appearance, such as posture, costume components or overall silhouette. The shapes of his characters are simultaneously literal and fanciful.”

page 14, The Extraordinary Shapes of Geoffrey Rush Exhibition Catalogue.

A director, costume designer, or actor may be responsible individually or collaboratively for what we, the audience see on stage or screen as the character’s clothing. It is easy to underestimate the extent to which a selection of items, their colour, shape and design can influence an actors performance, and in turn our interpretation of who they are and the role they play in the story. Many costume designers would argue that the most successful costumes are those that go largely unnoticed, those that blend with a story and character so seamlessly that they become one entity. It is wonderful to be able to reflect upon Rush’s interpretation of his costume, and the way in which it effects his development of the character, that we in turn interpret for ourselves.

If there was ever any doubt, anywhere, that a collection of items of clothing on a person create an image and an identity, that we as individuals and as a society interpret and project meaning upon, then these examples of Rush’s process should dispel that doubt.

Here are some of the snippets:

Of the character Dave in Dad and Dave: On Our Selection (1995), Director George Whaley, Costume Design Roger Kirk we learn:

“as well as Dave’s gangling physicality, a vital element for Rush in establishing the character’s dim-witted nature was his hat. From its flat, up-turned brim, he gained a sense of Dave’s brain as being ‘very open to the world, but not a lot of content; it’s just a very large empty surface…this great goofy emptiness’.”

p. 20, The Extraordinary Shapes of Geoffrey Rush Exhibition Catalogue.

Of the character Philip Henslowe, the cash strapped owner of The Rose Theatre, from Shakespeare in Love (1998), Director John Madden, Costume Designer Sandy Powell he says:

“a’ratbag dressed in a cack-brown doublet and hose, an Elizabethan stinkbug theatrical producer’. For this , he performed as though his conical hat was constantly pressing down on his head, causing him to look upwards in a grovelling manner.'”

p.20 The Extraordinary Shapes of Geoffrey Rush Exhibition Catalogue.

Of the character Captain Hector Barbossa, the deliciously treacherous and charming pirate, arch rival and uneasy ally to protagonist Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) in the Pirates of The Caribbean series (2003 – 2015), Directors Gore Verbinski, Rob Marshall, Costume Designer Penny Rose, we learn:

“once again, Rush used his hat as a character-defining shape, saying: ‘I never really feel completely in character and ready to go until I put the hat on. When the hat is off, it just feels like me with a frock coat on'”

p.24 The Extraordinary Shapes of Geoffrey Rush Exhibition Catalogue.

Of his character Lady Bracknell, a domineering matriarch in the play The Importance of Being Ernest for the MTC (2011) Simon Phillips Director, Costume Designer Tony Tripp,   he informs us that:

“creating the appropriate female silhouette was crucial, ensuring the correct balance between the character’s hips and generous bosom”

p.32 The Extraordinary Shapes of Geoffrey Rush Exhibition Catalogue.

Geoffrey Rush as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Ernest

Of his character Clint, a five-year old boy from a broken home from the play The Small Poppies for Company B Belvoir (2000), Director Neil Armfield he says:

“the key to finding his inner five-year-old was his costume, which included short socks and high-waisted shorts”

p.44 The Extraordinary Shapes of Geoffrey Rush Exhibition Catalogue.

Geoffrey Rush in Company B Belvoir’s production of Small Poppies, Dublin 2000

Of his interpretation of unconventional Australian Speech Therapist Lionel Logue in The King’s Speech (2010), Director Tom Hooper, Costume Designer Jenny Beaven, he shares that:

“in a rare photograph of Logue, Rush also found something ‘dapper and distinctive’ in the bow tie and ‘decorative quiff of hair’ he sported, which helped him to create the gently eccentric character.”

p.50 The Extraordinary Shapes of Geoffrey Rush Exhibition Catalogue.

Lastly, but definitely not least, my personal favourite costume of the exhibition, he say of his character the infamous writer, the Marquis de Sade in Quills (2000), Director Philip Kaufman, Costume Designer Jacqueline West he tells us:

“in developing this notoriously subversive individual, he found inspiration in his costume. The shabby silk suit reminded him of an out-of-date rock star, and the wig with rolls on the crown and two tied extensions at the back, together with his buckled shoes and thin calves, suggested a goat. Using the image of the animal skilfully negotiating a rocky precipice, Rush developed a close-footed walk for the Marquis that reflected the character’s precarious yet tenacious existence.”

p.48 The Extraordinary Shapes of Geoffrey Rush Exhibition Catalogue.


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The Marquis de Sade’s wig, Geoffrey Rush, Quills


Whilst costume is important to Rush, his head wear is clearly paramount. It was with relish having seen this exhibition, and mulling over my thoughts for some time regarding it that it struck me that in one of the final scenes of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Captain Hector Barbossa don’s his pirate hat again after playing “dress up” as a somewhat dubiously respectable  “privateer” in the King’s navy for the bulk of the film, now triumphantly returning to his own pirate clothes. In this moment Rush eloquently conveys a sense of authenticity and satisfaction that Barbossa achieves as he pops it on, returning to his true villainous identity.

Rush, as an actor has developed this tool of using costume but  I believe we all have certain aspects of our everyday “costume” that help us get into character, although not necessarily as consciously. It might be the donning of a suit and tie, certain footwear or even “the warpaint”, the wearing of makeup. I’m fascinated by this idea of the rituals, symbols and images intricately tied up in the fabric of our culture and sense of identity. I’d like to delve further into this topic in future and would love any feedback or ideas as to items of clothing or presentation that are key to your dressing “the part”.

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Hope you enjoyed this.

3 Comments on “Costume and Identity: A reflection upon The Geoffrey Rush Exhibition

  1. Pingback: quills | filmstvandlife

  2. Very cool – I heard Rush interviewed on RRR recently (funny, he’s so shy in person!)… are you going to do one on Hollywood Costumes? I’ve been 4 times now and get something new out of it each time xxx

    • He does seem lovely doesn’t he? It’s interesting that from researching for this post I have discovered he has a lot of ardent fans out there. Truly passionate. Which is great, he deserves it. 4 times is impressive! And I only went twice! Although I am reading the tome of a catalogue from cover to cover. Will write about it too but would love to hear you thoughts. What were your favourite bits? What did you learn? xo