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QA – Verity Laughton

Kangarilla woman Verity Laughton is behind the stage adaptation of Pip Williams' best selling novel 'The Dictionary of Lost Words'.

How did you enter the world of theatre?

My very first adventure into theatre was when I was eight years old and rewrote Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (fairies only) in rhyming couplets.
The result was performed at our local church’s annual concert by various members of my indulgent family – my mother on piano; my father as MC; my big sister as Titania; my baby sister as Puck; and my best friend as Oberon in her mother’s lovely gold-green silk cloak.
I read the rhyming couplets from a corner of the stage in an inaudible voice.
My next was a University of Adelaide student production of T.S. Eliot’s long poem, The Wasteland, when I was 19, where, incidentally, I met my husband.
I can still quote my lines!

What do you love about theatre as a way of communicating, as opposed to other mediums like written text or cinema?

I love it because it is present space, present time.
You can access the moment in a way you can’t in most forms of narrative.
It can be awful, of course, when things don’t gel.
But when they do, for me, it’s a hit like no other.

The Dictionary of Lost Words has a strong reputation, having sold more than 500,000 copies. Was there a sense of gravity in the task of adapting such a popular and well-known work to theatre and how did that influence your work?

I’d loved the book, and I knew a whole raft of people in my circle who also had.
And I knew it had an army of committed readers.
Then I met Pip, who is something of a treasure.
So, I have taken the task seriously.
I can’t say that it necessarily made a difference to the actual work of adaptation – that’s an intellectual task above all and I hope I would work as hard on anything I’d been asked to do. But now that the writing is done, I’m very, very keen that it serves the companies who’ve got behind it and fulfils the expectations of its audience and, most of all, is a good experience for Pip.

The novel covers a time span of almost 45 years and follows significant changes in the life of its protagonist, Esme. What were the challenges in condensing it to a story suitable for the stage?

I was worried at first about how difficult it might be to condense such a long book into approximately two hours. But I managed to condense some of the early scenes into a slightly different time frame and after that I just got ruthless when necessary.
At the first reading it was obvious that the early scenes, though nice, were taking too long so I’ve been watching ever since for ways to cut them. And you do have to ‘kill your darlings’ as the saying goes.
For example, I have cut part of a scene featuring Dr Murray that I think illuminates his story – which I guess I’d include if we had more time. However, in present circumstances the play is better without it.
I did get to hear the wonderful actor playing Dr Murray, Chris Pitman, read it once. So that will have to be enough for now!
And I should also say I have had excellent feedback through the now quite long process of writing from various of my peers, and this has been very helpful in guiding my choices.
I don’t always do as suggested but I do always listen and try to learn.
What drew you to The Dictionary of Lost Words and why did you believe it should be shown on stage?

I identify with Esme quite a lot.
I think many women of my generation have lived with the experience of being invisible and of finding their way by a kind of subterfuge. And, like both Pip and Esme, I am and always have been obsessed with words (witness that first play!).
So her preoccupation resonated strongly with me.
I think it should be shown on stage because it speaks to so many women’s lived reality of being female – there’s lots about the body, which contrasts with the more intellectual material about language.
Pain, a sense of one’s physical being as the one on which one is judged, menstruation, sex, childbirth, the relentless round of domestic necessity.
But it does so in a context in which that is not The Subject – which can alienate some people – it’s just the byplay of living in a female body and attempting to build a life. I also think it’s important because it shows the impact of a ‘good father’ – not a perfect one, life is too complicated for that – but a good man who is trying his best. Both Murray and Harry, Esme’s father, fall into that category.
I think it provides a model for male behaviours in relation to the women in their lives which is helpful and even inspiring. I know there are lots of damaged men, who do great harm. But there are also lots of good ones, and I’m not sure that that gets a lot of press right now.
What are the key strategies you use when converting a novel to theatre?

Get the structure right – simple as that.
Work and work until the progression of events is inevitable. That’s the intellectual task.
The emotional task is to ‘land’ the characters inside that structure is such a way that they resonate with the audience.
And the thematic task is to clarify the throughlines of the play so that the audience can decide for themselves about the issues raised.
And finally to get the tone of the novel into the play because when audiences are familiar with a loved novel that’s basically what they have come to re-experience.
What are the themes that viewers can expect to take away from the play and do they differ from those in the novel?

The big ones are the impact of language in every aspect of our lives; the historical invisibility of women in a patriarchal culture; and perhaps the power of love to give courage to people to keep on keeping on.
I think you can find all three in both book and play; but you may find others.
I think people may find their own take on the themes running through the show.
There’s a moment when a piece is handed over to its audience.
They own it in a way the makers no longer do.
So I hope it will have its own life and its own meanings as Pip’s book now does for so many readers.

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