Bartleby turns up out of the blue looking for a job as a scrivener in lawyer Standard's Wall Street firm. At first he is a model if taciturn worker but he causes consternation in the office when, suddenly and inexplicably, he declines to do what is required of him. His recurring phrase, "I would prefer not to", signifies his gradual withdrawal from life.
Melville's ambiguous allegory can be interpreted in various ways. Is it about a man opting out of the urban capitalist race or an existential staement about the absurdity of life? Here the emphasis is less metaphysical and more psychological, with the strong suggestion that the homeless Bartleby is mentally ill, possibly autistic.
Ralph Bolland's intriguing Bartleby has the unfocussed look of a man losing his grip on reality as emptiness spreads through his soul. David Keller gives a powerful performance as both the narrator and Standard, unable to throw him out because of conscience but also because Bartleby has become his 'shadow'. Edward Max, Chris Porter and Adam Dunseath as the other eccentric scriveners all provide comic relief in this dark, mysterious tale.
It's mostly set in a Wall Street firm, conjured up by steel tables and high backed metal chairs shifted into increasingly skewed angles. Copyists scribble their lives away, duplicating legal documentsunder the exacting but benevolent eye of their boss, Standard.
Their monotonous routine is disrupted by Bartleby, an enigmatic man who at first proves to be the most diligent worker. Then, one day, he refuses to do any more work, answering every demand with "I would prefer not to". This includes not leaving his employer's office, even after being fired.
Eventually he is arrested after refusing to leave Standard's vacated premises and finally lets himself waste away in prison.
What are we to make of Bartleby's inaction? Is it a nightmare vision of unchecked depression that ends in suicide? The dehumanising nature of capitalism? Or a radical rejection of the materialism that so disillusioned Melville?
As played superbly by David Keller, Standard is at first irritated by Bartleby's insubordination and becomes like many of us when we confront society's dropouts or cast offs. But then he comes to see in Bartleby's unyielding singleness of purpose a kind of purity, a sort of perfection.
Ralph Bolland has an appropriately deathly pallor and mournful eyes in the title role. But since this central character is so utterly colourless, it's left to a youthfully naive Adam Dunseath, a ferrety Chris Porter and living Boz illustration Edward Max to offer some contrasting vitality as Bartleby's disconcerted colleagues.
His continued non-productive presence subverts the whole idea of work, especially the system of middle-class wage-slavery that depends on polite consent and tacit acceptance of the idea that we must spend most of our lives doing boring and disagreeable tasks.
That kind of drudgery is felt a little too much in the occasional longeurs of Jonathan Holloway's 90 minute production as Bartleby becomes increasingly beyond understanding and help.
Yet towards the end, as the upended desks form the clattering doors and hallways of the prison, we're transported into a nightmare that floats between Dickens and Kafka, and Melville's intriguing tale truly comes alive.