Bartleby, written and directed by Julian Hobba, and currently playing at the Street Theatre, Canberra is a solid and delightful show in many ways.
The original story by Herman Melville was set in 1853, and Hobba’s adaptation of this story to our modern times strikes a nerve. An old lawyer with a small practice in financial law has recently recruited a young partner and the difference in their working styles and energies is immediately apparent. He represents the “old world” that is slowly giving way to the ‘young guns’ – ambitious and highly strung. Into this mix enters Bartleby, seemingly unsuitable for the task at hand but immeasurably useful to their ’boutique’ consultancy practice. When Bartleby fails to do his work, things fall apart very rapidly.
Of the three actors in this piece, the standout performance belonged to Dene Kermond as the Young Lawyer, who managed to capture the tone of his character and execute it well, both physically and vocally. Ben Crowley tackled Bartleby admirably – with little to say, he had to work hard to be ‘read’ in other ways. Max Cullen, who has long been one of my favourite actors on the stage, always brings a certain amount of charm into the room. The Old Lawyer needs to be charming, immediately lovable and his age is important to the generational gap explored in the narrative. Thematically, the Old Lawyer also provides the human counterpoint to an ever increasing in-humane work environment. I would’ve liked to see more connection to the other actors in the space from Cullen. In the moments when he hit the right note, his spark lit up and was a joy to watch; but there were many a time when I couldn’t hear him very well.
All the production elements worked beautifully together in an understated way. Set design by Christiane Nowak was suitably bland and geometric – able to be transformed with lights when needed; lighting by Gillian Schwab was simple but spot on – I particularly loved the row of lights at the back of the stage that added visual interest and were used to great effect at moments in the play. (It was great fun to watch Schwab operating her lights manually in one of these moments too). Sound design by Kimmo Vennonen provided diegetic sound to frame some of the scenes and the choice of various jazz recordings and a Bing Crosby to accompany scene changes tried to keep the energy up-beat. All selections suited the piece perfectly.
Having been privileged to see a reading of this play in development I was very curious to see how Hobba had progressed the play in the last 12 months. While it was generally improved, there were two moments in the production that struck me as disappointing. The first was the transition into and out of the dream sequence at the end of Act 1. This sequence is my favourite in the piece, and I missed the fact that in development it was left unsaid which character this dream belonged to. In performance its very clear. The other moment is the reason for Battleby’s sudden, and seemingly irreversible revolt. I can intellectualise why Bartleby begins to behave this way, but I didn’t see it either unfold as an inevitable process, or experience the moment when he snaps.
Rhythmically, the pace was fairly gentle over all, perhaps even a little slow at times. The writing was particularly good – filled with large doses of humour and pathos – so much that I am thinking of returning to the theatre to hear it again. The motif of Melville’s most famous story, Moby Dick, is also used in this play to great effect.
The Street Theatre is to be commended for their support of local writers over the last number of years and it’s wonderful to see these efforts reach the stage.