Bringing a much-loved book to the stage or screen is not a task to be taken lightly. Through the author’s words and their own imaginations, readers have already conjured a vivid picture of the characters and the world they inhabit – and when the novel is a contemporary bestseller that has sold more than half a million copies worldwide, expectations are especially high.
The theatre team adapting Adelaide Hills author Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words has grasped the challenge with boldness and creativity.
“I think a good adaptation is presenting what you love but also turning up the volume on the things that it’s endeavouring to say and do,” says director Jessica Arthur. “Pip’s book does that incredibly well, but to present it live with bodies performing it in front of you means it can reach you on another level.”
Sydney-based Arthur, who previously directed the 2022 stage production Chalkface, is in Adelaide for rehearsals of the State Theatre Company South Australia and Sydney Theatre Company co-production of The Dictionary of Lost Words, which has enjoyed global success since its publication by Affirm Press during lockdown in 2020.
The historical novel weaves together events both factual and fictional in the story of a young girl called Esme Nicoll (to be played by Tilda Cobham-Hervey), who grows up among the lexicographers compiling the first Oxford English Dictionary in England and collects the words they have discarded that relate to women’s experiences.
South Australian playwright Verity Laughton, who consulted with Williams throughout the creative process, has distilled the historical context and honed in on key moments in the story to turn a 370-page book into a roughly two-hour play that will premiere at the Dunstan Playhouse this month. Unlike the book, Arthur explains, the show is not narrated by Esme: instead, audiences will watch events unfold through her eyes and go on a journey with her.
“There are key life-altering events that happen in Esme’s life and I think Verity has picked really beautifully the things that make her who she is – the things that happen to her early in her life that set the path ahead. And then she gets to a point where her whole world is turned upside down by completely different perspectives to her own.
“It’s really fun because for a while you think you know what you’re watching and then, once you get to the covered market or you meet Tilda the suffragist (Angela Mahlatjie)… we’re watching her mind explode and the walls of her world completely bust open. It’s a wild ride, really, from there.”
The Dictionary of Lost Words is set at the height of the women’s suffrage movement, highlighting the inequalities women experienced due to both gender and social status.
It also gives a detailed insight into how the first Oxford English Dictionary was made, with the scriptorium – a garden shed in which young Esme hides beneath a sorting table while her father and a team of lexicographers carry out their work – almost like a character in its own right.
“A lot of people will get a bit of a glimpse into a part of history they may not know about, which is very, very fascinating,” says Arthur. “The actual process of how they put the dictionary together, and who was and wasn’t involved in that… it’s an entire tour of Oxford and back again.”
Arthur says the set, designed by Jonathon Oxlade, is “crammed with history” – including props such as books, paper, pens, slips and envelopes – to convey the “textures and feel” of the period, but has a contemporary edge as well. The theatre-makers are using a particular convention, the details of which remain under wraps, to give audiences an insight into how Esme sees the world.
“So you’re getting really up close and personal… we’re really finding a way to lean right into the beautiful intricate details of things like setting type or someone carving at the market or selling fruit and vegetables… it’s showing the detail and level of work that goes into the corners of everyone’s life, not just the men at the scriptorium… It’s really simple but creative. It’s leaning into the imagination of Esme.”
The Esme of the novel is a charming but often quiet character, and in highlighting some of the adaptations necessary for the stage, Laughton has said that the three-dimensional version presents as “more actively argumentative and knowingly witty than she can be in the novel”.
You go on a real rollercoaster of emotions with this show
Nonetheless, Esme still feels like the same person, according to Arthur, who describes her as a collector – of knowledge and facts, feelings and ideas. She says Cobham-Hervey – whose screen credits range from the Helen Reddy biopic I Am Woman and the terrorist thriller Hotel Mumbai, to the State Theatre plays Vale and Things I Know to be True – is also very curious in her approach to the character and “really cuts to the heart of her”.
“As she’s inhabiting and exploring who Esme is, I feel like she’s matching the curiosity and the overwhelming emotions… it’s really vibrant and wonderful.”
Love and loss are integral to Esme’s coming of age, and the director admits there were tears in the rehearsal room when the actors tackled the scene where the motherless girl must go off to boarding school and, for the first time, finds herself alone, away from her father Harry (played by Brett Archer), the house’s maid and her friend Lizzie (Rachel Burke) and the familiarity of home. But the play also contains plenty of humour – such as when Esme meets the “shocking and hilarious” market stall owner Mabel (Ksenja Logos), who introduces her to many hitherto unknown words.
“When we got the market, we were just in stitches, so I hope the audience are – it’s very vibrant,” Arthur says.
“You go on a real rollercoaster of emotions with this show. Just as you’re kind of like, ‘Oh God, this is sad’, it completely flips on its head and you’re at the covered market with Mabel just not believing half the stuff that’s’ coming out of her mouth. There’s a lot of fun.”
In many ways, Arthur says, Williams’ novel is like a cheat sheet for the creative team, informing and enriching the way the story is presented on stage.
“We’ve got this rich, rich detailed world that Pip has filled out, so we can talk about moments in the book to enrich the way things are acted on stage… it gives the actors a richer inner life for the characters.”
The Dictionary of Lost Words will premiere at the Dunstan Playhouse from September 22 until October 14, after which is will have a season at the Sydney Opera House.
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