In 1901, the word ‘bondmaid’ was found to be missing from the Oxford English Dictionary. A century later, this simple oversight catalysed an epiphany in the formation of the theatrical debut of The Dictionary of Lost Words. Directed by Jessica Arthur and adapted for the stage by Verity Laughton, this play based on Pip William’s bestselling novel is an astounding performance set during the seismic events of the late 19th and early 20th century, at the height of the women’s suffrage movement and the dawn of World War I.
The play begins with protagonist Esme Nicoll (played by Tilda Cobham-Hervey) observing her father, the lexicographer Harry Nicoll (Brett Archer) from beneath his desk as he is researching and curating the first Oxford English Dictionary. In what can only be described as the first vibrations of a ripple effect, a slip of paper with the word and definition of ‘bondmaid’ (a "slave girl") falls onto the floor, where a five-year-old Esme innocently watches her father and his colleagues work. This moment reverberates into Esme’s interest in the compilation of ‘lost words’ – those words discarded, forgotten and considered not worthy enough for the Oxford dictionary. (And why is it, that so many of those words that fell through the cracks have something to do with women?)
Laughton’s script exceptionally translates the novel to stage…allow[ing] for greater emotional investment
The Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House is transformed into the scriptorium of Oxford for the Sydney debut of this production from Sydney Theatre Company and State Theatre Company South Australia, which follows a season in Adelaide.
Jonathon Oxlade’s set design is an artistic masterpiece which uses a stage-wide bookshelf as a marker to show changes in setting in place. This is accompanied by Oxlade’s ingenious use of a projector throughout the performance – a camera hidden within a lamp above the scriptorium’s central desk projects handwritten notes, indicating locations and highlighting the passage of time. This creative design carries the emotional tone of the performance. The greatness of this play could not be praised without recognising the feat of creativity in Oxlade’s wonderful set design, which allows the audience to instinctively suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in Esme’s life.
In a story which centres on language, Laughton’s script exceptionally translates the novel to stage. In particular, Esme’s monologue on her fervent love for lexicography invites an intimate moment between the audience and protagonist, painting a raw image of true passion and service to what you love.
In a role which evolves from an innocent four-year-old to a grown woman in her twenties, Cobham-Hervey’s performance is a force to be reckoned with. Her meticulous execution of Esme’s mannerisms and body language at different ages creates a cognisant understanding of the ever-changing passage of time and age (this is also greatly facilitated by Ailsa Paterson’s costuming). However, seeing an adult play an infant does awkwardly burden the audience with suspending their imaginations a touch further than they may have bargained for, which does raise questions about why a younger actor was not cast for Esme’s childhood years. But this decision comes at no fault to Cobham-Hervey, who thoughtfully and intuitively embraces the range required for the role.
Many of the supporting cast play multiple characters throughout the performance. Both Raj Labade and Anthony Yangoyan showcase dexterity and a powerful presence in their respective roles as love interests, as well as other supplementary characters. However, the star of the cast is Ksenja Logos, whose transformation from the comedic and compassionate Mabel to the maternal and intelligent Ditte (amongst other roles) appears effortless. ( An indicator of Logos’ skills? I was actually completely unaware that she was playing multiple characters until after the performance. It is unfathomable to realise that all those roles were all played by the same person!)
The second act is a cascading downpour of emotional turmoils that leaves the audience mesmerised. This adaptation has masterfully selected enticing scenes from a novel which covers more events than you could dream of fitting into a stage show. The omissions do not detract the central plot of the performance, but rather allow for greater emotional investment in more central scenes. However, the greatness of the second act overshadows the first act, creating some imbalance in the performance.
The Dictionary of Lost Words is a poetic experience. A little slow to start, this is a fantastically self-aware story of personal growth and moral development – not just for Esme, but for language itself. Do not miss out on the beauty of this show.
The Dictionary of Lost Words plays at the Sydney Opera House until December 16, 2023. Tickets range from $67-$114 and are on sale now via the website here.