The Sovereign Wife

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The Sovereign Wife does more than wreck havoc on colonial themes, cliches and regular MTC goers; the show’s 40 odd costumes make for a compelling visual yarn.

The slap dash chic of the national costume archive living in our collective conscious reads a little something like this reference list: sails of the Opera House, Indigenous art, budgie smugglers and a cork hat. Pretty soigné stuff really.

As DIY queer-theatre troupe Sisters Grimm prepare to take us on a wild romp through our national identity via The Sovereign Wife, so too does the show’s impressive set of costumes that span three different eras; contemporary Ballarat, 1850s goldfields and 1860s Northern Territory

Stretching one hundred and fifty years of toil and hardship, The Sovereign Wife is one woman’s epic journey across our sunburnt land from country Victoria all the way to the Simpson Desert – never once forgetting the historical importance of our colonial ties and those true blue Aussie characteristics; larrikanism, mateship, piss-taking and gender-bending.

We took some time out to chat to the show’s costume designer Owen Phillips, who makes the outback epic live on through our recognised ‘straya fare, executed here with some real local flair.

Genevieve Wood: What’s the best part about being a costume designer?

Owen Phillips: Nothing can beat the feeling of the first day in the theatre.  All the costume elements are finally there, you add hair and makeup, and you and the actors bring it all together. The thick black make-up or the chunky jewellery that all looked hideous in the fitting room suddenly look amazing under theatre lights. It always feels like more happens in that first hour in the theatre than has happened in the previous six weeks.

Are there any crucial points in the show represented by the costumes?

I think the most crucial aspect of the costumes is that they really ground the story and the characters in the various periods. The big frocks of the 19th century society ladies against a desert landscape, or the beards and braces of Ballarat gold diggers are so iconic and familiar, and they provide a fantastic counterpoint to the bizarre and offbeat humour of the writing. In this world, the expectations you have of the way someone in a bonnet and lace gloves should behave are suddenly all turned on their head as soon as they open their mouths!

GW: What did you go to for inspiration/influence?

OP: The costumes for The Sovereign Wife are pretty much Jane Campion’s The Piano meets Muriel’s Wedding. With the show being a re-imagining of the Australian epic, especially in a cinematic context, film and TV was always our main reference point. Everything from The Proposition, The Man From Snowy River and everyone’s favourite Baz Lurhmann film Australia.

GW: Where was the most unlikely place you picked up a costume piece?

OP: Not unlikely per se, but I did get a pair of Chinese pyjamas in Chinatown in New York!

GW: What is your favourite piece?

OP: It’s like choosing a favourite child! It changes all the time, and often it’s the strangest things.  At the moment it’s tie between a fabulous Flying Nun-style hat we borrowed from MTC and a pair of lumpy, gold clip-on earrings that cost four dollars from Savers.

GW: What’s the best Australian costume moment?

OP: I really don’t think you can go past Nikki Webster’s pink hibiscus dress circa Sydney 2000.  Not many other people could have pulled that colour off as well as she did.

GW: What should we wear to the show?

OP: As much Ken Done as possible. Also Coogi cardigans, gumnut baby earrings and vintage Jenny Kee are all essential for complete enjoyment of the show.  An Australian flag draped elegantly around the shoulders certainly couldn’t hurt either.

The Sovereign Wife plays as part of the Neon Festival at The Melbourne Theatre Company until 21 July.
For tickets visit  mtc.com.au.

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