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Bestselling SA novel bound for the Adelaide stage

Internationally bestselling South Australian novel The Dictionary of Lost Words will be brought to the stage by State Theatre Company SA in a 2023 season that will also see television star Claudia Karvan tread the boards for the first time in 25 years.

Oct 18, 2022, updated Oct 18, 2022
The stage adaptation of  'The Dictionary of Lost Words' will capture the essence of Adelaide author Pip Williams' multi-award-winning novel.

The stage adaptation of 'The Dictionary of Lost Words' will capture the essence of Adelaide author Pip Williams' multi-award-winning novel.

State Theatre artistic director Mitchell Butel launched his fourth season last night at Her Majesty’s Theatre, saying it marked the start of a fresh era following the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations this year.

Seven new main-stage productions will be presented across 2023, including the world-premiere stage adaptation of Adelaide Hills author Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words, which has garnered international acclaim and become a book-club favourite since it was published during lockdown in 2020.

Set at the height of the women’s suffrage movement and weaving together events both factual and fictional, the novel centres on a curious girl called Esme who grows up among the lexicographers compiling the first Oxford English Dictionary and begins collecting the words they have discarded or neglected that relate to women’s experiences.

“I love it because it’s about language, it’s about family, it’s about romance, it’s about the law, but it’s also about identity and finding who you are, and I think those stories resonate with everybody,” Butel tells InReview, adding that the story acts as a portal to explore the suffragette movement and its impact on Adelaide.

“Spinning off from the play, I think there will be a lot of good conversations about female empowerment and the recognition of the female voice in a fun way and also in a way that really moves people.”

Casting is still underway for The Dictionary of Lost Words, which will premiere at the Dunstan Playhouse in September and is a co-production with Sydney Theatre Company. The book is being adapted by South Australian playwright Verity Laughton and will be directed by Jessica Arthur, with a set design that embodies the magic of the story.

“What Verity has done with it is so beautiful – she has kept all the spirit and the bones of the book but really made it a thing that’s for the stage, too,” Butel says, explaining that the play is likely to incorporate technology such as projections that ensure the “lost words” rescued by Esme are writ large in the theatre space.

“We’ve done two workshops already and it’s spectacular.”

State Theatre’s 2023 season-opening play ­– American playwright Edward Albee’s Tony Award-winning marital drama The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? – is also being presented with Sydney Theatre Company and will pair Claudia Karvan (Bump, Love My Way, The Secret Life of Us) with fellow television actor Don Hany (Offspring, East West 101).

Claudia Karvan and Don Hany will play Stevie and Martin in The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?.

Karvan hasn’t performed on stage since 1998, but Butel says she saw and loved State Theatre’s 2006 production of The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?: “She actually named her son Albee after seeing this play, so it’s been a big thing in her life.”  

Butel will direct the new production himself and predicts that Karvan and Hany will be a dynamite pairing as Stevie and Martin, a couple who appear to have the perfect middle-class marriage until things go drastically awry when Martin reveals his secret love for “someone or something” called Sylvia.

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“It’s about transgression and betrayal. It’s kind of a tragi-comedy, really… it becomes about what happens in a partnership when someone genuinely crosses a line from which there is no return.”

Anna Goldsworthy’s memoir Welcome to Your New Life will be presented at the Space Theatre in November 2023.

While the upcoming season encompasses many different worlds and voices, Butel says the notion of family flows throughout the works – “families falling apart, new families forming, families beyond the biological, families being changed or ruptured”.

One of the most obvious explorations of this unintentional theme is Welcome to Your New Life, an adaptation of Adelaide pianist and writer Anna Goldsworthy’s memoir about the wonder and anxiety that accompanies becoming a new mother. Melding what the company describes as “Up the Duff candour with Lena Dunham-like wit”, it will be presented at the Space Theatre in November as a two-hander with a live musician.

State Theatre will also present Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing ­– about a boy trying to bring his mother out of depression by showing her every brilliant thing in the world – as part of a Space Theatre double bill with another one-actor play, Suzie Miller’s Prima Facie, which will see Caroline Craig (Underbelly, Blue Heelers) play a barrister who finds herself on the other side of the bench after being sexually assaulted by a colleague. (Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer is currently performing in Prima Facie on London’s West End).

Every Brilliant Thing and Prima Face will play across the same dates (April 28 to May 13), with the Space Theatre stage being reconfigured between each performance.

“You have the option of seeing both on the same night or you can see them at different times,” Butel says. “They are stylistically very different, so I think it will create lots of great spark having them so close to each other.”

Actor Jimi Bani will return to the Adelaide stage in Every Brilliant Thing.

Rounding out the main-stage season will be Australian First Nations playwright Nathan Maynard’s At What Cost?, a provocative play exploring issues of identity, family and belonging through the eyes of a Palawa man (played by Luke Carroll), and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, starring Zahra Newman (The Book of Mormon) as Billie Holiday in a fictional account of one of the jazz legend’s final performances.

In a rare move, State Theatre Company is also bringing back two of its previous sold-out shows for short seasons in August 2023: the 2022 Adelaide Festival hit Girls & Boys, starring Justine Clarke, and Adelaide playwright Emily Steel’s Euphoria, which will also embark on a tour with Country Arts SA. Butel says both productions were hugely successful for the company, both commercially and artistically.

“I think it’s a really wonderful thing for a company to bring back works that have really struck a chord with audiences, to celebrate the artistry that gave life to them.”

Full details of State Theatre Company SA’s 2023 season are now online. The season also encompasses two Stateside productions: My War (by No Strings), and Dead Man’s Cell Phone (by Sarah Ruhl, supported by Slingsby and Brink Productions).

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