Herman Melville's Bartleby still resonates in new Canberra production
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Herman Melville's Bartleby still resonates in new Canberra production

Some people say they live in the office. A new Canberra theatre company is launching itself with a play in which a man does just that - and won't leave.

Tension: Dene Kermond plays the young lawyer in Bartleby's workplace.

Tension: Dene Kermond plays the young lawyer in Bartleby's workplace.Credit:David Flannery

Bartleby is directed and adapted by Julian Hobba from Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville, updating the American writer's 1853 ta le to modern-day Australia.

"It's about a guy who comes to work in the office of an elderly lawyer,'' Hobba says, "for whom the old lawyer develops an inexplicable affection."

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Dilemma: Max Cullen as the old lawyer in Bartleby.

Dilemma: Max Cullen as the old lawyer in Bartleby.Credit:David Flannery

The updated setting is a boutique Australian firm - there's only one other employee, a young lawyer - that specialises in tax law. Bartleby works hard at first - "he's incredibly productive" - but one day when asked to do a task replies, for reasons known only to himself, that he would "prefer not to".

This becomes his standard answer to any request or order and any question about his motives or background to try to ascertain what it going on is met with the same response. And eventually it is discovered that he is living at the office. Even when he is eventually dismissed and is told to leave, his reply is the same: he would prefer not to. Bartleby's motivation is mysterious.

"That's what makes the story so special," Hobba says.

He liked the mood of Bartleby and says the design of the production reflects the cramped, confined feeling evoked in the story, "the really visceral mood Melville evokes in the depths of the office environment".

Malaise: Ben Crowley as Bartleby, whose motivations grow more mysterious as the play unfolds.

Malaise: Ben Crowley as Bartleby, whose motivations grow more mysterious as the play unfolds. Credit:David Flannery

Melville's descriptions have helped provide "the kernel of mood" that went into the design of the set.

Veteran actor Max Cullen plays the elderly lawyer, Dene Kermond (seen recently at the Street in Heart of a Dog) is the younger lawyer in the firm and ACT improvisation performer Ben Crowley plays the title role.

And Bartleby's refusal to budge ultimately forces the elderly lawyer to take action.

Hobba was intrigued by the story when he read it and thought its single setting and vivid, if elusive story about three men in an office who he says "go crazy together" would be a suitable subject for adaptation to the stage, with plenty of contemporary resonance.

Hobba, 37, studied journalism and worked as a media monitor before turning to theatre. He directed, produced and wrote three independent works in Melbourne. He wrote and directed Honey Bunny’s Sagittarian Full Moon Finale (2011) and wrote and produced I Do, in Caroline Springs (directed by Peter Adams in 2005) and Delicacy (directed by Wesley Enoch in 2006). His play Father Son Rule was shortlisted for the 2008 Griffin Award. He was also company manager for Malthouse Theatre .

He moved to Canberra from Melbourne in October 2012 to work on the Centenary of Canberra as program manager - arts and culture.

"I got to know the arts scene here really well,'' he says.

Continuing that interest and drawing on his previous theatrical experience he created Aspen Island Theatre Company to produce contemporary Australian theatre in Canberra.

"I wrote Bartleby in 2012 and developed it in the Street's Hive program. It was originally going to be produced at the end of 2013 but for scheduling reasons it was moved to this year."

Also on the creative team are scenic designer Christiane Nowak (From a Black Sky, Noplace, Kapture), lighting designer Gillian Schwab (In Loco Parentis, To Silence, WordPlay, Pea!), and sound designer Kimmo Vennonen (2010 MEAA Green Room Award Winner).

Hobba is already planning his company's next production, an adaptation of Homer's The Odyssey which he intends to co-direct with Clare Moss. He believes that fort a theatre company to present a classic text, there has to be a reason for it, some relevance to the contemporary world.

And he thinks Bartleby certainly has that. Melville's story has been subject to various interpretations: it's been, for example, seen as a portrayal of a clinically depressed person and a study of psychological doubling (why does the old lawyer, who narrates Melville's story, put up with his behaviour?).

"It's the first really modernist literature and a presage to the absurdist vein - a lot of it is unexplained."

Hobba adds to these the idea.present in his updated adaptation, that it could be an example of the effects of the workplace: the taking over of individual identity, the alienation from self and society.

"Melville's story is even more relevant today than perhaps when he wrote it, for a lot of people."

Bartleby. Adapted by Julian Hobba from the story by Herman Melville. Directed by Hobba. The Street Theatre in association with Aspen Island Theatre Company. July 26-August 2. Bookings: thestreet.org,au

Ron Cerabona is an arts reporter for The Canberra Times.

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