Arts / Cullen heads to the bar

Actors Max Cullen, left, and Dene Kermond in "Bartleby: He’d prefer not", at The Street Theatre.Photo by David Flannery

Actors Max Cullen, left, and Dene Kermond in “Bartleby: He’d prefer not”, at The Street Theatre.Photo by David Flannery

IGNORANCE is bliss when Max Cullen and I chat about the new play he’s in, “Bartleby: He’d prefer not”, written by Canberra playwright Julian Hobba.

Cullen gets to play an old lawyer through whose eyes the tale is told and he cheerfully admits he knows absolutely nothing about the law, except what he’s learned from a couple of divorces.

He also knows nothing about the “commercial law thing”, or about anything commercial, except that he once did a commercial [“Oils Ain’t Oils”], “but we won’t talk about that”.

I’m worse than Cullen. Although I have been thoroughly grounded in “Moby Dick” and “Billy Budd”, I’m ignorant about “Bartleby” – inspired by Herman Melville’s 1853 novel “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” – and in shame, rush to read the story as soon as I finish talking to Cullen.

I find he’s summed it up pretty well. The pivotal character, Bartleby, is a staffer hired by a commercial law firm (in the Australian adaptation) who proves, Cullen says, to be “a terrific asset and a profoundly good worker… until the pressure gets too much and he becomes catatonic… that’s where the drama begins”.

As Cullen sees it, Bartleby’s psychological seizure causes him to refuse to engage with anybody. Indeed, his key phrase is “I prefer not”.

Bartleby prefers not to do any writing, he prefers not to answer questions. He prefers not to leave the office and eventually has to be physically removed to a place where he prefers not to eat.

In Hobba’s adaptation, Cullen says, Bartleby ends up in an asylum and, by taking considerable liberties with Melville, including throwing a bit of “Moby Dick” into the mix, (“it makes for a very powerful moment”) Hobba suggests there could be hope for the character.

That seems to please Cullen. He’s just back from Queensland, where he’s been making a crowd-funded movie about a derelict footballer – “and I know absolutely nothing about that”.

He has a couple of weeks to rehearse the play so has relocated temporarily from nearby Gunning to take up a residency at Gorman House. While it’s true that Cullen has been getting a lot of work in films in recent years, notably in “Gatsby”, he’s now doing a two-man show with Warren Fahey about Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson hanging around at the Pearly Gates, an excuse to talk about the good old “Bulletin” days.

Cullen has better-than-guarded praise for Hobba, whose script he was astonished to find is very good. As well, he is very impressed that Hobba is starting the new Aspen Island Theatre Company which, as he says, “might have parts for a decrepit old bloke”. All actors look towards their next role.

“Bartleby: He’d prefer not”, at The Street Theatre, July 26 to August 3. Bookings to or 6247 1223.


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