Sydney Theatre Company’s adaptation of Pip Williams’ best-selling novel The Dictionary of Lost Words is loyal to the book but weighed down by exposition. By Fiona Murphy.

The Dictionary of Lost Words

A professor stands atop a bookshelf.
Brett Archer, Chris Pitman and Angela Mahlatjie in The Dictionary of Lost Words.
Credit: Daniel Boud

“Some words are more important than others,” says Esme Nicoll in Pip Williams’ debut novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words. “I learned this, growing up in the Scriptorium. But it took me a long time to understand why.”

It didn’t take long for this story about words to find a readership. The novel charts the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1886 to its completion in 1928. Released in March 2020, Williams’ book went on to become a multi-award-winning international bestseller. It has been published in more than 30 territories and a television series is in the works. The theatre adaptation, co-produced by the State Theatre Company South Australia and Sydney Theatre Company, is now on at the Sydney Opera House.

The Scriptorium is “just a shed, in a back garden of a house in Oxford”. It is where Esme (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) spends her childhood. She crawls beneath the sorting table as a team of lexicographers, including her father, Harry (Brett Archer), compile and define all the words in the English language. The mostly male team is overseen by Sir James Murray (Chris Pitman), who maintains great enthusiasm even when the dictionary is “already a decade overdue”.

Words that haven’t been written down or are considered vulgar are omitted from the dictionary. These “discarded” words alight on Esme’s imagination as a child and sustain it throughout adulthood. She begins to pocket slips of paper that she finds on the floor of the “Scrippy”. She houses these “neglected” words in a trunk she calls The Dictionary of Lost Words.

Eventually Esme recognises there is a gendered element to how words are treated. Words used by women tend to be discarded or are considered less “solid”. As a young woman, Esme begins to discover life beyond the Scrippy. She visits the local markets where she discovers commonly spoken words that don’t appear in the dictionary. Friends and strangers alike quickly embrace her project to collect unrecorded words: latch-keyed, cunt, quim, morbs, bumf, dollymop, bostin mairt, knackered. Esme also gains a new understanding of how “versatile” the word “fuck” can be.

“They were mostly women, old and young, and few of them could read the words they’d given me once I wrote them down,” says Esme in the novel. “But they loved to share them. Over the years I’d managed to collect more than a hundred. Some words, I discovered, were already in the pigeon-holes, but so many were not.”

Despite playwright Verity Laughton’s significant edits – including cutting out characters and tightening storylines – the first act remains closely wedded to the novel’s expansive time line. In an attempt to cover 20 years, the script becomes weighed down with exposition.

But the management of time isn’t the biggest hurdle in this adaptation: it is Esme. In her playwright’s note, Laughton writes with candour about this challenge: “Esme’s actions are often secret, even to herself.” While the play is set during a time of enormous social upheaval, “the great events of Esme’s own life are often internal … she does not drive the action, as the protagonist in a stage play usually would”.

Laughton has remained loyal to the book by keeping Esme at the centre of the adaptation but this brings with it a raft of lost opportunities. Every character functions solely to aid her and consequently experiences little to no personal growth. Tilda Taylor (Angela Mahlatjie) – an actor who joins the Women’s Social and Political Union (“Mrs Pankhurst thinks her stage skills will be useful”) – is captivating in the book. She brings wit, courage and sensuality to the story. This is not capitalised on in the play despite Mahlatjie providing a lively stage presence. The play’s focus is continually pulled back to Esme, whose mode of thinking tends to be cautiously observant and circular. While a steady accrual of insight may be more forgiving within the novel format as the reader experiences the slow widening of Esme’s world view, it places an incredible strain on the play.

Everyone who comes within Esme’s orbit – friends, family, love interests, colleagues at the Scriptorium – is aligned with the fight towards suffrage or at the very least recognises its importance. They encourage Esme to learn about suffrage through conversation, letters, small gestures or even chaperoning her to marches and pamphlet drops. Only Lizzie Lester (Rachel Burke), Murray’s maid, expresses any apprehension about challenging the status quo.

Burke delivers Lizzie’s lines with tender, dignified feeling: “I clean, I help with the cooking, I set the fires. Everything I do gets eaten or dirtied or burned – at the end of a day there’s no proof I’ve been here at all.” But she too is flattened into one dimension, as she meekly supports Esme’s journey of self-discovery.

Cobham-Hervey gives poise and charisma to the role. But even as she valiantly works to elevate the often-dense dialogue – “Talk like a human being,” says Lizzie – Esme’s engagement with suffrage fails to captivate. As Laughton notes, Esme “is radicalised through the suffrage movement but even her activist forays are polite, contained, and wary. She maintains an aura of innocence and a commitment to moral principles to the end.”

When interviewed about creating the character, Williams has said: “It mattered to me that Esme was ordinary, that she wasn’t the kind of person who was brave enough to get out there and scream and shout and break the law for the things she believed in – because they’re the usual heroes and heroines … We don’t all have to be on the stage to fight for things important to us – everyone has their own gifts and skills, and bringing those to the table is enough.”

Ironically, in the moments when the cast is at a loss for words – living through the horror of war, violence, grief and oppression – the play shrugs off the confines of exposition. Under the guidance of director Jessica Arthur, the play’s stagecraft powerfully conveys the inexpressible through lighting (Trent Suidgeest), music (Max Lyandvert) and movement (Ruth Fallon).

Jonathon Oxlade’s set design re-creates the magic of the Scriptorium with hundreds of small pigeonholes. A screen curves along the top of the stage, projecting the work that unfolds on the sorting table. This stroke of genius brings the textual elements of the novel – slips, definitions, letters, pamphlets, newsletters – to life.

Costume designer Ailsa Paterson deserves praise for the nuance she brings to each character, from the slightly ill-fitting suit worn by Bill Taylor (Anthony Yangoyan) to the officious mortarboard atop Murray’s head. This attentiveness to the emotionality of clothes brings added resonance to Cobham-Hervey’s embodiment of Esme from the age of four to her 30s, a span of life that is filled with curiosity, grief, introspection and a boundless love of words.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is playing at Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until December 16, and Arts Centre Melbourne’s Playhouse from February 17–March 10.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 4, 2023 as "A play on words".

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