Multi-award winning designer Jonathon Oxlade's work has a trademark ebullience and charm that emanates from the stage. Most recently for MTC, he designed the 80s nostalgia-infused set and costumes for Astroman. With Così, he delves a decade earlier to bring 1971 Melbourne to life... with the added theatricality of a slapdash opera.
How would you describe the costume designs you’ve created for Così? What is the world of this play?
Così is such an incredible show to costume design for. It's set in a pivotal political point in 1971 Australia, very much grounded in reality, but it also reaches out to the fantastic and invented worlds of art and the imagination... of theatre. These two polar offerings set up interesting aesthetics, it's almost like two shows; there is a show within a show.
How did you arrive at your design choices? What have been the influences?
I always look at what is happening in the year that the play is set – social, political, fashion – but also before. Characters often drag the past with them in their clothing, some characters are 'on trend', but the majority of the time you can see time and their gathering of items in their costume journey; a favourite jacket, a worn pair of jeans etc. It was important to reflect what was happening in 1971 Australia, but also create a sense of play in the characters so they do not become too much of a caricature.
In your opinion, what is Così about? How do your designs support the play’s big ideas?
For me, Così is about the importance of art and connecting through art. Art can bring us together, it can build bridges between peoples' ideologies, their moral foundations, the way they see each other and the world around them. I like that the costumes in Così display a wide gamut of different types of humans with different takes on the world they live, with their different traumas and abilities. The common thread for them is being in an institution and being different from one another, they find their commonality; through finding each other, they find their light, joy, and what it means to be an empathetic human, together.
How are you using colour in your designs?
The team really liked the idea of the show progressing through a colour palette, beginning in more muted tones that reflect their state of mind, and climaxing in the 'opera' with full, bright, illuminated colour and light. It should feel like they are shining from within and filling the stage with the full spectrum of colours, a rainbow.
How do you use costume to communicate characters?
Some of the characters are more eccentric than others. Roy for instance is quite theatrical, and I liked the idea that he had a brightly coloured suit that he probably wore daily with different additions. It's like his uniform in his daily life, a little like when you see the same person on the street that pops out of the ordinary, their choice is bold, but it's so pleasing.
In addition to each character’s costume, you’ve also designed costumes for the opera within the play, Così Fan Tutte. What considerations have informed your opera designs?
The opera costumes are intended to look like the characters have constructed them using items they have found; real flowers, fabric, existing garments, and then decorated and embellished them. The characters are a little like bowerbirds that have created costumes like nests, adding and choosing the right elements to draw attention to themselves.
Is there a particular moment in the play that you’re especially excited about, regarding your designs?
I think one of the highlights in the play is the 'getting ready' moments, where we see the characters constructing their costumes, making sets and learning lines to put on the opera... -hey isn't that the best bit of putting on a show?
Is there anything else about your costume designs that you’d like to share?
The play and film Così have been around for a while now, and the story has been presented in many different ways. I hope that this version of the play opens up a new way to look at its storytelling. It's always a challenge to create a new feeling for something that is so trusted and has had many appearances before. Hopefully we have done that.
Così plays at Southbank Theatre from 30 April. Book now.
Published on 10 April 2019