Review: THE DICTIONARY OF LOST WORDS at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

An adaptation of the best selling novel by Pip Williams.

By: Sep. 28, 2023
Review: THE DICTIONARY OF LOST WORDS at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

Mitchell Butel, the Artistic Director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia, proudly announced on social media that, for the first time in the company’s history, the entire season of a production was sold out, even before the first preview performance. Limited seats with restricted views have now been offered for sale due to the demands of those who missed out on buying tickets. Playwright, Verity Laughton’s excellent adaptation of The Dictionary of Lost Words, the best-selling novel by South Australian author, Pip Williams, has captured the interest of Adelaide theatregoers. A co-production with the Sydney Theatre Company, it has some of our regular highly creative people involved, as well as others from Sydney. It features a sensational cast, under the inspired direction of Jessica Arthur.

The story has an historical basis, with the idea of the dictionary being suggested to the Philological Society in 1857. James Murray, who was then president of the Society, was appointed editor-in-chief in 1879. It was originally titled A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by The Philological Society, and was published in ten volumes between 1884 and 1928. It became the Oxford English Dictionary in 1933 when republished in twelve volumes with a one-volume supplement. After the publication of the first volume, A to B, a letter arrived in 1901, pointing out that the word ‘bondmaid’ had been omitted. This inspired Pip Williams to write her first novel.

The play follows the life of Esme Nicoll, from the age of four to adulthood. Her father, Harry, is one of those working on the dictionary under James Murray, and she spends her time sitting beneath the table at which they work. When the slip for ‘bondmaid’ falls on the floor, she retrieves it, starting her collection of ‘lost words’. She stores them in a trunk belonging to the maid, her friend, and confidante, Lizzie Lester. Although only a few years older, Lizzie fulfils many of the roles that Esme’s deceased mother would have done.

Tilda Cobham-Hervey plays Esme, who is onstage for the entire play, leaving only to quickly change costumes as her character ages. She gives a mesmerising performance, her character growing in complexity as Esme discovers that it is a male world, and the dictionary reflects that patriarchy. She later realises how much women are treated as inferiors, when she encounters the Suffragettes. Her life has its ups and downs including a pregnancy from a brief encounter, and giving up the baby to a couple leaving for Australia. The Great War has a profound personal effect on Esme. Throughout all of this, Cobham-Hervey conveys Esme’s obsession with the lexicography of women’s words, as well as those words of the illiterate which were completely ignored as they were not written down and, thus, for which no quotations were available. She builds her own collection of slips, her dictionary of lost words. Cobham-Hervey is central to everything that happens and carries that weight through a strong commitment to her character.

Rachel Burke plays Lizzie Lester, the young maid who recognises herself in the definition of the ‘bondmaid’. Burke gives us a wonderful counterpoint to Cobham-Hervey’s Esme, as a friend, supporter, and caring adult, and attempts, unsuccessfully, to be a moral guide through her Catholic faith. Like most of the cast members, she also has other minor roles, Mrs. Smythe and Maria, and slips smoothly between them.

Harry Nicoll is played by Brett Archer, presenting a man buried in his work, missing his wife, and nurturing his daughter. He indulges her, but angers quickly when she goes too far and affects his work. James Murray, later Sir James Murray, the single-minded leader of the group, is portrayed beautifully by Chris Pitman

Ksenja Logos plays Esme’s godmother, Ditte, a sophisticated, educated woman. At the opposite end of the social scale, she plays Mabel, a gap-toothed, cackling old woman, a prostitute in her younger days, but now scraping out an existence by carving small wooden figures that she sells in the covered market. She provides Esme with a good many new words for her collection, none of which would be acceptable in Victorian polite society. Logos ends the play, many years later, in 1989, as Megan, Esme’s daughter, gives a speech as she retires from her chair at the University of Adelaide. Logos creates three extremely different characters and you could be forgiven for not realising that it is the same person playing all three.

Esme is greatly influenced by an actress, Tilda Taylor, who is also a dedicated Suffragette, played by Angela Mahlatjie. Tilde brings Esme into the sisterhood, but they disagree on the way in which votes for women should be won, Esme is looking for a peaceful approach, while Tilde talks of aggression. Mahlatjie presents us with a strong performance as the bold, self-assured woman, determined in her drive to gain the vote. She also adds a touch of levity, sporting a false moustache as one of the lexicographers, Frederick Sweatman, with a regular interest in what will be coming from the kitchen each day. It is Tilde’s brother, Bill Taylor, played with devious charm by Anthony Yangoyan, who is responsible for the naïve Esme’s pregnancy. Esme finally finds love with Gareth, marrying him the day before he leaves for ‘the front’ where, after a series of letters between them, he joins the many who never returned. He is played sympathetically by Raj Labade.

A corrugated iron shed, known as the Scriptorium, held bookshelves, and 1,029 pigeonholes for the slips of paper with the words, definitions, and quotations that were to be considered for inclusion. Jonathon Oxlade’s set design reflects this, with a wall of pigeonholes, hidden doors, steps to an upper level, and an assortment of furniture based around one massive desk. On that desk is a large lamp which, in fact, conceals a modern version of an overhead projector, a camera and ring-light, the ever-changing items on the desk projected onto a stage-wide screen, the rear wall of the upper level. With minor changes, the one basic set serves for all of the locations in the play, with the upper level primarily used as the young maid, Lizzie Lester’s bedroom. It is to here that four-year-old Esme Nicol retreats, and uses Lizzie’s trunk to store the slips that have fallen to the floor, or been rejected.

Every role played by these performers is worthy of mention, not only for their individual efforts, but also for the interactions between characters, and the marvellous ensemble work, all enhanced by the technical aspects of the production.

Trent Suidgeest’s lighting design and Max Lyandvert’s music, including an oft-repeated, funereally slow snippet of (The Bonnie Banks of) Loch Lomond, add greatly to the atmosphere. Ailsa Paterson’s Victorian costumes, and Jana DeBiasi’s hairstyling, wigs, and makeup, are superb, and dresser, Kellie Jones keeps all of the changes flowing smoothly.

Every aspect of this production deserves accolades, and the three curtain calls and a standing ovation on the opening night said it all.

At this stage, you might be lucky if there are some of those seats with restricted views still available, or you could try adding your name to the list of people hoping for returns.

Photography, Sam Roberts


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