[Theatre – SA]
The Dictionary of Lost Words
Wed 27 Sep 2023
At first pass the tale of a young woman growing up dreaming of being a lexicographer may not present as a ripping yarn. But courtesy of some astute direction, wonderfully creative use of an eye-catching set, and uniformly excellent performances from the whole cast The Dictionary of Lost Words is totally engrossing.
We meet Esme as a four year old hanging around in her father’s ‘scrippy’ or scriptorium (a place for writing). Her father works for an eminent scholar who is compiling a dictionary. With that kind of upbringing Esme was always going to grow up either loving or hating words, and fortunately she realises words can be an escape, a path to alternative realities, and collecting new words and quotations to show their use becomes something of an obsession.
The story unfolds in the late nineteenth century as the suffragette movement is gaining momentum in Britain. Wanting a more independent life than most women, Esme had already decided that marriage was not for her and was potentially a suitable candidate to help further the suffragette cause.
As Esme grows older she begins to accompany her maid to the local market. This turns out to be a surprising entry point to another universe for Esme when she strikes up a friendship with a woman selling hand-made trinkets. Their first meeting was hilarious and quite a shocking exposure to another world for Esme.
The rapid set transformation from scriptorium to market was also a wonderful surprise for the audience. In a trice we move from a stuffy office with desks, paper, people in suits, shelves, to a lively joyous scene with vendors, beggars, flowers, fruit, colour, and noise on streets heaving with life.
However the scriptorium itself held plenty of visual interest. A wall of shelves served as bookshelves, letterboxes, pigeon-holes, library catalogue compartments, and gateways to secret passages. An ingenious projection device variously displayed information about date, locations, words with definitions, abstract backgrounds, visual metaphors to reinforce the messages – it provided another separate but connected filter on events taking place and added depth and mystique to many scenes – brilliant!
Tilda Cobham-Harvey’s performance as Esme was faultless and inspiring – as a child, teenager, and young woman. Her ability to grow – literally – in this role and share her frustrations, joy, love and enthusiasm was authentic and endearing.
Ksenja Logos as Mabel the market tramp deserves special mention for her earthy comic touch and entertaining revelations about the language of the lower classes, but really – all characters played their roles to perfection. And despite their sometimes pompous façade they all had a warmth and humanity about them.
Sometimes it can be subtle, almost unnoticeable moments that elevate a play to another level. There were two occasions when unspoken lyrics from The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond were implied and totally in synch with the events on stage. This production is littered with such metaphorical moments reinforcing the narrative.
A great show. So good to see so many elements of theatre blended into an impressive whole!
Adapted for the stage by Verity Laughton from the novel by Pip Williams
Directed by Jessica Arthur
The Dictionary of Lost Words continues at the Dunstan Playhouse at various times until Sat 14 Oct. Click HERE to purchase your tickets.