Emily Barclay, Geoffrey Rush and Patrick Brammall in The Importance Of Being Earnest

Exploring the darker recesses of YouTube one day I uncovered what is no doubt Geoffrey Rush’s least-seen performance. In a webisode of gay soapy Queer as Fxxk, he plays lecherous Lance, a bumbling doctor who finds a patient’s mum is an old flame. The six-minute internet-only turn has a tick over 800 views — around 19.9 million less than Keyboard Cat.

“Can you feel it,” Dr Lance says to one nurse, hands in hers, eyes narrowing, every bit as sinister as any pirate of the Caribbean. “The healing powers. Some people say that it radiates.”

Rush, of course, still radiates. Goodness knows why he did it. But then, goodness knows why he thought he could leave the stage and star in a film about an acclaimed pianist after a mental breakdown. Or, just as he was building a reputation as an art house champion, become a Disney pirate in an endless blockbuster franchise.

So that the AFI/BAFTA/SAG/Emmy/Tony/Globe/Oscar winner — the one who happily offers a light to plebs out the front of Melbourne theatres at interval after catching the crowded train into town — shows up on a Melbourne stage in drag is not really a surprise. He’s not the first; Tony-winner Brian Bedford donned a corset to play Lady Bracknell on Broadway earlier this year. You imagine Simon Phillips, directing his final production as Melbourne Theatre Company boss, didn’t have to twist his arm all that hard.

You see, aside from laying claim to the title of one of the greatest thespians of his generation, Rush is a Good Sport. He’ll give anything a go. And it’s bloody infectious.

In The Importance Of Being Earnest, 23 years after he first went Wilde for MTC (he played John Worthing in a once perennial production beginning in 1988), Geoffrey Rush doesn’t really manage to be anyone but Geoffrey Rush. The anticipation is too high; the star power acquired over the last decade too blinding. The opening night audience loudly cheers when Lady Bracknell makes a grand entrance. Under the make-up and wig and elaborate millinery, it’s him. Our Geoff. What comes out, a husky snarl more Helen Clarke than Helen Mirren, more pre-op than post-op, is less a faithful portrait of a Victorian-era matron than a pantomime impression of one.

Which isn’t to say Rush’s monstrous Bracknell isn’t a genius performance. It is. Buttoned-up to the neck, appropriately padded, Rush’s every facial muscle is acting. Expressions draw laughs other actors couldn’t. Wilde’s words rarely sound so caustic and so damn funny in this Lady’s mouth.

The season through mid-January is completely sold out because of one man (standing room tickets are available along with inflatedly-priced New Year’s Eve seats). He gives them what they’ve paid so much for.

Simons’ production demonstrates what he has done best at MTC, and why he has been such a successful main stage producer — to quote Gwendolyn: “In matters of grave importance, style, and not sincerity, is the vital thing.” It’s not a criticism, at least not here. His Earnest drips with style, from the gorgeous period costumes to the pop-up book set — recreated from the original ’88 designs of the late Tony Tripp — and the graceful movement around the circular stage. With his elegant cast he times the action impeccably, wringing everything from the celebrated script.

To that end, the female protagonists stand out. Christie Whelan rejects the delightfully ditzy roles she’s played in the past to inject Gwendolen with more spine than she otherwise may have. It’s a thoroughly intelligent performance. And terrific to see Emily Barclay make her Melbourne stage debut; her perfectly plummy Cecily is a long way from the thrilling performance in Aussie flick Suburban Mayhem that made her one of the brightest young stars in the country. Jane Menelaus — Rush’s wife, who played opposite his John in the original production — joins the reunion as Miss Prism.

The two playboys have been well cast, certainly, but probably need more performances to really nail the rhythm. Toby Schmitz — who gave such a wonderfully giddy performance in Bell Shakespeare’s Much Ado earlier this year — is John; Patrick Brammall — who stood out in MTC’s Apologia and Clybourne Park this season — is Algernon. There were a couple of missteps, but they’ve both got the chops to iron them out. Special mention, too, of Bob Hornery as scene-stealing butlers Lane and Merriman.

And so each box is ticked: Simons departs with a winning production, Rush delivers a star turn, a fondly-remembered production is revived, a classic play is preserved, every seat has been filled. The craft of theatre is advanced not a single iota. But by god it’s good fun.

The details: The Importance Of Being Earnest plays the Sumner Theatre until January 14. Only standing room tickets remain available each day from the MTC box office.