By Julian Hobba, after Herman Melville. The Street Theatre, Canberra. 26 July – 3 August 2014

Herman Melville’s 1853 short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street” tells of a subdued law copyist, or scrivener, who, after several days of hard work in a law office, withholds all cooperation, responding with little more than “I would prefer not to”.  The tale is somewhat unsatisfying in failing to reveal a credible cause of the conflict and so being unable to resolve it.


Julian Hobba’s stage adaptation of the story into the present is faithful to the original in all important respects.  It does subtly suggest a more modern psychological interpretation of Bartleby’s troubles than the original, but with no more satisfying a result.


That said, the play’s staging in The Street’s cosy Theatre 2 is a rewarding production to attend, for all kinds of reasons.


The set, which deteriorates as the play progresses, offers both realism and immediacy.  There is a dream sequence, taking place aboard ship, that almost has us rocking back and forth with the storm, and its lighting makes this scene in particular stand out visually.  That sequence aside, the play is ripe with laugh-aloud moments, chiefly because all three actors fill their roles superbly.


Max Cullen’s older character bumbled his way through his business and his management of Bartleby.  Cullen’s acting was so compelling that it was hard to shake the impression that it portrayed the actor himself.  Much of the play’s energy arises from the desperate comic timing of Dene Kermond, as the older lawyer’s new partner, bursting with ambition and modern managerialisms to the point of near-homicidicity in the face of Bartleby’s alien ways.  Ben Crowley successfully paints both the quiet exterior and the internal commotion that evidently propels Bartleby on his course.  All three actors were faultless, and the combination was electric.


John P. Harvey


Image: [L–R] Dene Kermond and Max Cullen, in Bartleby.  Photographer: Lorna Sim. Sketch montage by Garance Detering.


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