Adapted by Verity Laughton from the novel by Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words centres around the Scriptorium, where the very first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is being compiled. It is 1886, and researcher Harry Nicoll (Brett Archer) is working while his four-year-old daughter Esme (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) plays under the table.
The dictionary is being created by a group of men, led by Sir James Murray (Guy O’Grady), who receives submissions from the public with suggestions for the dictionary. We quickly learn that not all submissions are created equal, and only those from published writers are considered for inclusion. Given that at this time only men were permitted to be published, the gender imbalance is evident, with Esme later observing, “It’s like there’s a plot to make us all invisible.”
As she grows up, spending much of her time with her father at the Scriptorium, Esme begins to collect discarded words. These become her treasures and ultimately inspires her to reach out to women to actively gather more words. This creates a hilarious interaction with Mabel (Ksenja Logos), an older woman who sells wood carvings at the local markets, as she attempts to explain the meaning of the word ‘cunt’.
We watch Esme grow from an awkward, shy teenager into a self-assured woman with opinions and a way of relating to people who sees her form meaningful friendships. One of these is with her maid, Lizzie Lester (Rachel Burke) who becomes her constant companion and confidant throughout her life. Another is with stage performer Tilda Taylor (Angela Mahlatjie), a suffragette who encourages her to take up the fight for the vote, declaring, “Sometimes you need to force change.”
Directed by Jessica Arthur, the cast delivers an exceptional performance under challenging circumstances. After a stellar run in Adelaide, illness struck the cast and Guy O’Grady has stepped in at the last minute to take on the role of Sir James Murray. Despite having to carry a script around on stage, and a few prolonged pauses between lines, O’Grady delivered a polished performance.
Other standout performances included Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Esme and Brett Archer as her father Harry. Theirs is a close relationship with a bond that is evident and beautifully depicted.
Recognition needs to be given to Set Designer Jonathon Oxlade and Lighting Designer Trent Suidgeest whose combined efforts provide an innovative backdrop to the story. The use of an overhead projector as a scene-setting device is a stroke of genius, and you must appreciate the attention to detail.
It would be a mistake to assume that The Dictionary of Lost Words, performed by the Sydney Theatre Company, is primarily an account of how the Oxford English Dictionary was created. This play is so much more than that. Shining a light on the gender imbalance that permeated every facet of society (and in some respects, still does), this is essentially a story about female friendship, of women forging their own paths despite resistance and about the significance of words.
The words Esme documents from the women around her provide an insight into their lives. These words form the fabric of their days, but they do not define them. By collating her own dictionary, Esme if giving a voice to the voiceless.
Even today words are used to define women in a way that they are not used against men. An unmarried man is a bachelor, an unmarried woman, a spinster. The connotations are not equal. One is revered, the other pitied.
It is generally acknowledged that the history books (written by men) largely overlook the achievements of women. It is fascinating to consider that it is not only women’s actions that have been made invisible, but their words too. Combining historical events with fictional narratives, The Dictionary of Lost Words is a visually arresting and emotionally fulfilling performance.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Dictionary of Lost Words will run until 16 December 2023.
For more information and to buy tickets head to the Sydney Theatre Company website.
Reviewer attended on 31 October 2023.
Photos: Daniel Boud