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Review: THE DICTIONARY OF LOST WORDS at The Dunstan Playhouse

Review by Lisa Lanzi


Based on Pip Williams’ internationally revered novel, playwright Verity Laughton has crafted an enchanting and captivating work. With nuanced and considered acting from a fine ensemble, and detailed, impeccable direction by Jessica Arthur, The Dictionary of Lost Words is overall a triumph.


The strikingly successful stage design from Jonathon Oxlade sets an extraordinary visual standard immediately we enter the theatre. Somewhat reminiscent of the huge Sydney Nolan “Snake” exhibit found within Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), a geometrically segmented and subtly curved ‘pigeon-holed’ upstage wall filled with a variety of things is interrupted only by a set of steps allowing performers to ascend to a second level. This upper walkway is backed by a white cyclorama where sometimes whimsical projections are cast, to set a scene, or illustrate a moment or emotion; the mechanics of these manipulated by various performers meticulously arranging objects at the central onstage desk. The balance between the visuals, instances of abstraction, and more literal, and wordy, scenes is beautiful and certainly one strength of this complex production, and due also to the excellent and captivating AV Design by Lachlan Turner that augments but never intrudes.


As well as Oxlade’s impressionistic ‘wall' the stage is set with an arrangement of period desks, chairs, books, papers, and other ephemera that variously represent the ‘Scriptorium’ or ‘Scrippy’ where a collection of men (and eventually Esme) toil to put together the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Oxford’s ‘Covered Market’, home interiors, Lizzie’s room, and more. Enhancing each location during the play is the creative, thoughtful lighting design by Trent Suidgeest. Alongside the direction, these elements emphasise the strength of the work in more abstract moments where seamless scene changes blend from one to another, time shifts, and characters develop without the need for too much laboured furniture moving or verbal exposition. Other dramatic features are Ailsa Paterson’s striking period costuming and the music and sound design of composer Max Lyandvert. The mournful but sweet instrumental refrain of Auld Lang Syne returns a number of times throughout the play tugging tenderly at the audience’s emotions.


Thematically, there is much to discover in this play, from language and power and the inferred gender politics of words, early feminism and suffragette ideologies, family and relationship convolutions, societal and cultural shifts, love (or lust) in myriad forms, plus grief and its consequences. The narrative follows a motherless Esme from the age of four in 1886 through her life and growth as a woman to 1915. In the background is the partially true, partly fictive story of the shaping of the OED and to the fore is Esme’s penchant for collecting lost or discarded words with intriguing consequences.


This cast, some playing multiple characters, is quite the dream team. Ksenja Logos ably inhabits Ditte, Esme’s intelligent and independent godmother, Mabel, the foul-mouthed former prostitute, Alice of the Suffragettes, and finally Megan in 1989, the daughter Esme never met. With grace, quiet determination, and range, Tilda Cobham-Hervey plays the intelligent, determined but sometimes fragile Esme imbuing her different ages and varied emotions perfectly. Rachel Burke gives us moments of true power and deep immersion as the wise but uneducated maid, Lizzie. Her scenes with Cobham-Hervey give some of the intimate, emotional moments much gravity and sensitivity. In the role of Tilda, an actress and militant suffragette, Angela Mahlatjie conveys an earthy, progressive woman in full control of her female power. Mahlatjie also takes the smaller role of Frederick Sweatman, one of the male lexicographers in the ‘Scrippy’ with an intense interest in the promise of baked goods for each day’s tea. This gender switch allows for some gentle humour and is not too distracting, though ultimately is a superfluous choice.

Brett Archer embodies an elegant, grieving Harry Nicoll, Esme’s widowed ‘da’. This character is also obsessed with his role in assembling the OED and although supportive of his daughter’s intelligence, is less interested in defending her in his workplace. With gravitas and presence Chris Pitman brings much to the role of Sir James Murray (lexicographer, philologist, and primary editor of the OED), his Scottish brogue without fault. In fact, the work of accent coach Jennifer Innes has contributed to the entire cast generally perfecting the varied accents required.


Raj Labade gives a beautifully considered performance as Gareth, Esme’s gentle and patient lover, who supports her independence and curiosity with unwavering understanding and faith. Labade also portrays Mr Crane, a worker within the Scriptorium, who Esme finds so very odious. As Esme’s first sexual partner, Anthony Yangoyan’s Bill Taylor character is fittingly attentive, flighty, and charming. His alternate part is as Arthur Maling, the Esperanto-spouting assistant of James Murray for thirty years, and who stayed working on the OED for another dozen years after Murray’s death in 1915.


Bravo State Theatre South Australia for programming a two-act theatre work of three hours (with interval). The general public seem to have mostly lost the tenacity or will to sit for longer periods in a theatre and sadly seem to prefer sixty to eighty minute offerings. There are a few times when the overly wordy first act dragged slightly and further dramaturgical refinements might be considered as the season progresses here and in Sydney. However, the over-arching high quality of the acting, writing, direction, and design elements is an overwhelming success. This play is a wonder of complexity and a roller-coaster of emotional highs and lows and sold out in Adelaide prior to opening.


Lizzie, the housemaid in the Murray residence exclaims to Esme: “Everything I do gets eaten or dirtied or burned. At the end of the day there’s no proof I’ve been here at all.” With this passionate clarification of the word ‘bondmaid’, Lizzie endows power and purpose to the first ‘lost’ word slip that Esme pocketed at four years of age (a word which factually was not entered into the first edition of OED for reasons unknown). This sets the scene for a thematic undercurrent about the invisibility of women and the dominion of male power over much in our world, including words and meaning. How utterly and sadly relevant this notion remains.

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