How do you write a play from a novel about words? How do you even write a novel about words? The South Australian team of Verity Laughton, playwright and Pip Williams, author have done both to great effect in this fabulous adaptation of this international best-seller novel.
It is not just about words, or the fact that dictionaries – the Oxford English Dictionary in particular – were originally constructed by older, white, Victorian era men. It is also about the struggles of women to contribute to the development of a more rounded collection of words and their meanings into a more fully representative compendium of the treasure that our language is.
The story is a rich examination of a turbulent period of British Society from the 1880’s to the present day. We see it through the lens of an intelligent, modest, determined and innocent word-obsessed woman, growing in an intensely patriarchal world. The central character of Esme is superbly portrayed by Tilda Cobham-Hervey, around whom all the other protagonists circulate. It starts when she is four years old, hiding under a table and saving discarded words from the busy lexicographers. It takes us through the ravages of growing up without a mother, the challenges and conflicts of the suffragette movement, love and loss, the First World War, and some agonising choices towards her emancipation and the present day.
The acting throughout is as convincing as it is entertaining, with many of these seasoned actors playing multiple roles. Ksenja Logos, for example, masters both the neat, kindly and conservative Ditte as well as the glorious, slovenly, down-to earth, foul mouthed Mabel in the market place, among others. Brett Archer is a steady and supportive Harry Nicholl, or “Da” (Esme’s father), who ages with dignity, while Chris Pitman is a stern, committed Sir James Murray, head of the team of lexicographers.
The set by Jonanthon Oxlade is both ingenious and a perfect setting for most of the action. An enormous array of literally hundreds of filled pigeonholes doubles as a staircase to the upper acting area. Here there is also a full stage-width screen for protection of explanatory dates, words, and illustrations of what is happening in the action. Furthermore, the pigeonholes are sometimes back-lit, and sometimes opening as doors.
The music by composer and sound designer Max Lyandvert cleverly supports the action as needed. In particular, apposite variations on the song “Loch Lomond” reflects the fact that both separations and making choices are persistent themes of the story.
At three hours plus, this is a long and complex play, and I must confess that both energy and attention tended to flag somewhat in the middle of the second half. There may be some scope for some judicious pruning as its run matures.
Nevertheless, it’s not often that Adelaide can boast not only a world premiere but also a superb adaptation of a world-renowned novel, put together by two local writers, and with a number of local actors and creators. The capacity audience at the official opening night recognised this with its enthusiastic standing ovation. The sold-out Adelaide season augurs well for the touring of this excellent production interstate and beyond, and all who are involved in it, either on stage or elsewhere deserve many accolades.
State Theatre Company South Australia
The Dictionary of Lost Words
playwright Verity Laughton | author Pip Williams
Director Jessica Arthur
Venue: Dunstan Playhouse | Adelaide Festival Centre SA
Dates: 22 Sep – 14 Oct 2023
SYDNEY Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House | 26 Oct – 16 Dec 2023
The Dictionary of Lost Words is a co-production between State Theatre Company South Australia and Sydney Theatre Company.