The Devil’s Dictionary is a first play from Melbourne writer Helen Heritage, which tells a short, sharp tale of ambition, love, lust and deception amongst this city’s wealthy and morally flexible high-end. Michelle, a glamorous freelance journalist wants to break into the art market and decides to work as an agent for her lover Dante, a seductive European painter she meets on holiday and brings back to Melbourne with her. She needs quite a wad of start-up money, however, and presses her friend Bambi, a good-hearted but rather vapid and self-indulgent trophy wife of rich lawyer Morgan. However, Morgan is distressed with her excessive spending as it is, while angsting over getting a lucrative promotion and experiencing a general downturn in their relationship. Enter Dante, who seems to have an all-too slick approach to everyone and before long it begins to become apparent that something is afoot…

The Devil’s Dictionary
is an amusing and entertaining play, but one can’t help but feel it isn’t particularly fresh. It may seem a tad unkind to do so, but comparisons to David Williamson’s Up For Grabs are hard to avoid. Although, to be fair, the two works are fairly different in their details, there are a lot of points of commonality; both being plays depicting the foibles of wealthy/greedy Australians with more money than real taste or sense, a series of complex twists and turns regarding the sale of some expensive artworks as investments, themes of desire, betrayal and compromise, all instigated by a main character who is an ambitious sexy blonde new to the art scene and out to make a killing, punctuating the action throughout by making direct addresses to the audience.

The question of making this comparison to Williamson’s play thus becomes inevitably one of whether this is a positive or negative reflection. It is not really intended as either, other than to question the play’s originality, but regardless, it is probably an unfavourable association either way. For those who liked Up For Grabs this is indisputably not as good, lacking its levels of punch and outrageousness. Yet for many others Up For Grabs was a prime example of Williamson’s period of alleged decline into irrelevance, and so from this perspective noting the similarity would be doing The Devil’s Dictionary no favours either.

Nevertheless, there are other things that this production has going for it. The script is well-paced and much of its dialogue snappy, with a well-conceived thread running through it of Michelle breaking the fourth wall throughout with an alphabetised string of narration (“F is for Friendship” etc.), as befitting the titular allusion to Ambrose Bierce’s 1911 work of satire. Director/Dramaturge Gorkem Acaroglu shows promising talent with some complex blocking and deft arrangement of her four actors in the large, open set, with a lot of vignettes that freeze and rearrange as Michelle pauses and transitions the action by going in and out of her asides to the audience.

The quartet of actors is also quite good, getting just the right style of slight exaggeration for the heightened quality of the satirical text. Isabella Dunwill is charming as the spoiled Bambi, making her gradual evolution from clueless to cluey quite credible, while her husband Morgan is also well done by Philip Cameron-Smith, who makes a potentially dull role seem surprisingly sympathetic, especially given the character’s dubious moral stance. Simon Russell does a nice job as Dante, managing to portray the manipulative seducer without resorting to obvious clichés of either the European womaniser or slimy puppet-master.

The major attention must, however, go to Zoë Stark as Michelle. Even though the narrator, she doesn’t really have more stage time than any of her castmates, but the sardonic sexuality of the character is quite beguiling, played with great relish by the vivacious actress. One could accuse her vampy performance of lacking subtlety, but it never seems to work against the material and seems to be pitched just the right level. At any rate, Stark’s erotogenic Michelle is certainly the best thing in the show.

Staged in probably the most subterranean venue you’re likely to find (its bar, it must be noted with distain, does not serve water) The Devil’s Dictionary is an amusing play that shows promise even if it’s not quite there yet. However, it is an entertaining comedy with some good performances and is worth a look if you’re in the mood for something light.


The Devil’s Dictionary
by Helen Heritage

Venue: fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Dates: June 17 – 21
Times: Tues – Fri 8.00pm, Saturday 5.00pm & 8.30pm
Tickets: $25 full, $20 concession, $22 group booking (8+)
Bookings: www.fortyfivedownstairs.com or 03 9662 9966

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