Cobham-Hervey – whose screen credits include the films I Am Woman (in which she played singer Helen Reddy) and the terrorist thriller Hotel Mumbai – will play Esme Nicholl, a young girl who grows up among the lexicographers compiling the first Oxford English Dictionary and begins collecting the words they have discarded or neglected that relate to women’s experiences.

“I am so excited to be taking on the role of Esme and to have the chance to celebrate the amazing women that came before us that have allowed my generation the freedom of expression we have today,” she says.

Actor Tilda Cobham-Hervey.

State Theatre Company South Australia, which is co-producing The Dictionary of Lost Words with Sydney Theatre Company, announced today that in addition to Cobham-Hervey (who previously performed in its production of Vale in 2017 and Things I Know to be True in 2016), the cast will also include Ksenja Logos (Gaslight) as Ditte and Mabel, Brett Archer as Harry Nicoll, Christopher Pitman as Dr Murray, Rachel Burke as Lizzie, Angela Mahlatjie as Tilda and Raj Labade as Gareth.

The play will have its world premiere in Adelaide in September, followed by a season at the Sydney Opera House.

The Dictionary of Lost Words has enjoyed phenomenal global success since its publication by Affirm Press during lockdown in 2020, including winning multiple awards and being selected by actor Reese Witherspoon for her book club. The book is set at the height of the women’s suffrage movement, weaving together events both factual and fictional, with Williams’ research in Oxford also inspiring her recently published companion novel, The Bookbinder of Jericho.

Announcing the stage adaptation of Dictionary of Lost Words last year as part of State Theatre Company’s 2023 season, artistic director Mitchell Butel told InReview: “I love it because it’s about language, it’s about family, it’s about romance, it’s about the law, but it’s also about identity and finding who you are, and I think those stories resonate with everybody.”

South Australian playwright Verity Laughton has adapted Williams’ novel for the production, which will be directed by Jessica Arthur (Chalkface) with a creative team that includes set designer Jonathon Oxlade and costume designer Ailsa Paterson.

Arthur says Williams and Laughton have set up a vivid world for the team to bring to the stage: “Having worked with the creatives to realise how this story will be illustrated through set, sound, lighting and costume has already been an exciting process, and to top it off we have such a brilliant cast breathing life into the characters. We cannot wait to share Esme Nicoll’s imaginative world with audiences.”

At a special event held by State Theatre Company earlier this month to mark the launch of the publicity campaign for The Dictionary of Lost Words, Laughton, who is currently in Europe, told the audience via video that when adapting a contemporary novel, a playwright is “there to serve someone else’s story, and just as importantly, someone else’s audience”.

“In this case, the canvas is people pursuing personal goals amidst great moments of social change and history, with the added frisson around the making of that world through the making of its language. It’s thoughtful, funny and tragic – all three.”

The challenge, she said, was to retain the story’s breadth and depth while compressing it into two hours of stage time. Highlighting some of the adaptations necessary for the live performance, she said that Esme – a charming but often quiet and secretive character – presents as “more actively argumentative and knowingly witty than she can be in the novel”.

Dictionary has an army of more than half a million world-wide of highly invested readers,” Laughton concluded. “I must make sure that I/we, the adaptation, gives them the experience they have treasured from reading the novel in present-time, three-dimensional form.”

In addition to the stage adaptation, The Dictionary of Lost Words is also set to be adapted for a television series after the announcement late last year that two South Australian production houses have acquired the screen rights for the novel.

The Dictionary of Lost Words plays at the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, from September 22 to October 14, to be followed by a season at the Sydney Opera House from October 26 to December 16.

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