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The Dictionary of Lost Words

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Actors onstage in The Dictionary of Lost Words portraying a women's suffrage protest
Photograph: Pia Johnson

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Pip Williams’ best-selling novel comes to the stage with impressive design and standout performances but nothing much to say

When we first meet the star of The Dictionary of Lost Words, Esme Nicoll, it’s 1886 and she is under her father’s desk learning new words. She tries them on for size, testing out their definitions in sentences and quotes – “bondmaid”, “fashionable”, “Lily”. She’s curious and questioning, bright-eyed in a red Shirly Temple wig and Victorian smock. 

An adaptation of Pip Williams’ best-selling 2020 novel of the same name, The Dictionary of Lost Words is a three-hour epic spanning decades and covering everything from the Great War to the early suffrage movement. Two things pull us through the show’s century-long timeline: the construction of the Oxford dictionary, and Esme, who comes of age while constructing a dictionary of her own from the words discarded and deemed unsuitable in the process. Yet we never quite lose sight of the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Esme escaping under a wooden desk, child-like as she collects these ‘unseemly’ words and learns more of their meanings, uses and origins. 

Verity Laughton’s adaptation had a middling reception when it premiered last year at Sydney Theatre Company. Critics applauded the show’s impressive design and at times affecting dialogue but took issue with its exposition-heavy script and crowded plot. Upon its arrival at Arts Centre Melbourne, many of these criticisms still stand. 

Jonathon Oxlade’s design remains as impressive as ever, surrounding Esme in a grid-work of luminescent pigeonholes overlooked by a rectangular screen that displays various ornate tableau that tell us the time and setting of most scenes. A needlepoint, for instance, has the Nicoll’s home address sewn into it; a wooden sign declares that we’re in Oxford’s Covered Market. Under Jessica Arthur’s capable direction, scene transitions are seamless, the ensemble gliding across the stage with near-balletic fluidity and precision. 

Performances are also impressive across the board. Chris Pitman fills each scene he’s in with charisma and a much-needed levity as the head ‘scriptologist’, Sir James Murray. Ksenja Logos switches seamlessly from the maternal historian, Ditte to the uproariously potty-mouthed Mabel. Rachel Burke similarly flips from Esme’s kind-hearted servant, Lizzie, to the poised Mrs Smyth, and Angela Mahlatjie shines as the vivacious suffragist, Tilda Taylor. All of it is saturated in a sumptuous honey-coloured warmth by Trent Suidgeest’s soft-toned lighting design and costumed with an eye-catching attention to detail by Alisa Paterson.

There’s a lot to love in this production, in other words. The issue is with Esme, played here by Brenna Harding. It is refreshing to see a piece of durational theatre that favours minimalism and low stakes over bombast and spectacle, however Esme is ultimately lost to a top-heavy script and overladen plot. Including many of the rich details, supporting characters and subplots that populate Esme’s journey from early childhood to adulthood shows an admirable fidelity to Williams’ novel. But there’s just too much ground to cover.  

Laughton loads much of act one with dry exposition. Scene-after-scene feels bogged down by the need to push the plot along, and dialogue that explicitly tells us where we are or who Esme is. Oxlade’s design, too, is frustratingly locked into representing purely expository details. The effect is that Esme’s characterisation feels sacrificed in order for her to prompt more exposition from her scene partners. Her questioning personality and child-like naivete reads as a plot requirement rather than a character trait. 

Harding has an enigmatic stage presence. Subtle choices in physicality and intonation signal Esme’s change from child to teenager in act one beautifully. But her performance boasts an introvert’s preference for subtlety and restraint. She is often magnetic to watch for this reason, but it can make it difficult to clock how Esme is changing as she moves into adulthood, or to understand how she’s feeling. Moments when Harding was allowed to shake off rote exposition to allow us time to really note her nuanced choices were glorious. An extreme close-up of her grief-stricken face projected on the overhead screens showcased the possibilities of Oxlade’s design to represent Esme’s experience rather than simply shroud it in information, as well as the power of Harding’s performance when she is given time to react to her life rather than simply push it along.

Crowding scenes in exposition and info-dumps ultimately leaves less room for the show to explore Esme’s relationships, most notably those with Mabel and Lizzie. We consequently watch Esme grow and develop while the poor Mabel and servile Lizzie stay much the same; either an unquestioning support to her, or a resource for her dictionary. Through Mabel and Lizzie, she can find more words without needing to be subject to the experiences or position in society that created them. She notes with frustration how the suffrage movement ignores the poor but continues to boast only the most basic awareness of the circumstances of those she’s so willing to take these words from. To its credit, the show occasionally acknowledges this limitation, but it has no time to unpack it, nor enough of a critical perspective on Pip William’s original novel to try and resolve it.

We’re left with a frustrating irony; that for all its words, The Dictionary of Lost Words struggles to know what it’s trying to say. Soaring technical design, affecting performances and often beautiful language cannot distract us from the fact that Esme Nicholl is a character ultimately stuck beneath a desk, collecting her words, memorising their definitions, but saying very little.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is playing at Arts Centre Melbourne until March 17 and tickets are available here.

Want more? Check out the best theatre and musicals playing in Melbourne this month.

Written by
Guy Webster


$50 - $140
Opening hours:
6:30pm, 7:30pm
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