Geoffrey Rush anchored a delirious production of Forum in Melbourne
Two things you wouldn't normally count on seeing at an Australian theatre: Geoffrey Rush playing a 15-week season (Oct. 19, 2012-Jan. 6, 2013, including a three-week extension; opening night was Oct. 27) in a musical and an advertising banner outside Her Majesty's Theatre in Melbourne that read: "'As Funny as Buggery' - Spartacus." (I assume that the Spartacus in this case is the lesser-known cultural commentator Sextus Importunus Spartacus rather than the leader of the gladiators' revolt.)
However, lest those beyond Australian shores think that this production of Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was pitched at a particular audience with special comic tastes, it should be pointed out that the promotional tag is not to be taken literally but is simply a typical piece of Oz slang - as in: "Will you be going to the theatre tonight?" "Like buggery!" translated as, "Like hell I will!" The other point to note is that the latter response was certainly not one prompted by this exuberant, energetic and witty production, in which Geoffrey Rush gave a comic performance that could be mentioned in the same breath as Donald Sinden's Malvolio, Jonathan Pryce's Petruchio, Michael Gambon's Galileo or Ian Holm's (or Ian MeKellen's) Richard III. What these performances have in common is the actor's remarkable ability to inhabit the role physically as well as offering an absolutely individual reading of the part.
While striking a note analogous to the aforementioned banner, Rush incorporated an Australian knockabout element into his performance as Pseudolus while smartly avoiding the temptation to make it overly localized. There were light nods in the direction of Frankie Howerd (Pseudolus in forum's original London staging) and Australian stand-up comedy, but there were also echoes of earlier performances in both classic and Australian plays, where Rush's inventiveness and range of physical comedy skills ensured that a character always carried his own unique stamp. From the moment he stepped in front of the curtain to deliver the prologue, decked out in an extravagant billowing costume that could have been a Roman tablecloth (as designed by Alexander McQueen on a bad day) and wearing an outrageous feathered headdress that would not have looked out of place at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Rush's presence and command of the stage ensured that those in the audience knew they were in the hands of a suitably dotty and erratic guide for the evening.
But Rush's vocal skills and ability to put a number across were the real surprise as he launched into "Comedy Tonight" with eight members of the band marching through the auditorium with him (and later the rest of the cast) onstage. His rhythmic shaping and coloring of numbers such as "Pretty Little Picture" were exceptional. In the case of this song and other numbers in which Pseudolus was featured, he made light of the musical difficulties, delivering text and characterization in a strong baritone. Another critic, commenting at the end of the performance, suggested that it was high time an enterprising producer offered him Professor Higgins. On this evidence, he'd sing it as well as anyone around.
Although this production was built around Rush, there was no shortage of standout performances from the rest of the cast. In particular, Mitchell Butel as Hysterium took his cue from the character's name and maintained a level of comic hysteria that was never forced and always full of comic imagination. There is often a danger with this role that the actor will try to outdo Pseudolus in outrageous comic business, but Butel avoided that trap while never suggesting that he was simply playing second fiddle to Rush's rogue. Butel, a performer with a list of musical credits to his name, sang the role with style and flair. …