In Undercoat: A Parafoxical Tale, the character ‘She’ is clearly part-transformed into a red fox. For much of the show She is also immobilised in the rusting mound of a small car. Set and costume designer Emily Collett is currently creating this car for the stage at Melbourne’s La Mama Theatre. And kindly agreed to a short interview.
‘The car isn’t simply a detail of the set’, Emily says, ‘in effect it’s an additional character’.
As a basis for her design, Collett has sourced original parts from a mustard-coloured, two-door Toyota Corolla sedan (E20). Bec Etchell, who was until recently Technical Manager at La Mama, has donated these parts from the first car that she ever owned. Etchell remembers her Dad buying it for her secondhand. ‘I needed a car for a show. That was in 1999, I think. It cost $500 registered. I loved that car. If I could afford to I’d buy one now!’.
‘As well as the front passenger door, we have the front grill and bumper’, Collett explains. ‘These remind me of the smiling Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. In that story, the Cheshire Cat is a knowing presence, quite philosophical, and feels like a guide in Alice’s journey. The car in Undercoat plays something of the same role’.
‘The whole Cheshire Cat is often represented by a part, such as its big grin. The car that’s centre-stage in Undercoat will also be implied by bits and pieces’. It’s important to Collett that the car parts are recogniseably historical, and hardy, as well as compact. My own Dad used to say that those second-generation Corollas, launched in 1970, could run on the smell of an oily rag. In that year the Corolla was the second-best selling model of car in the world.
‘People still drive such Corollas’. Collett observes. ‘Yet the colour and styling of these parts also gives the sense that the car is timeless. So it supports the idea of fable, which is exactly right for the world of Undercoat’.
‘Undercoat is a paradoxical story. Set in an Australian landscape, as well as She it features three characters that are foxes. And because these three foxes live on the urban fringe, they know that a major cause of death to their species is collision with motor vehicles. Both She and the car represent a very disturbing intrusion into their habitat—the car, for the foxes, is surrounded by force field of repulsion-attraction. Like humans these characters project aspects of their particular reality onto the car’.
Meanwhile, for She, Undercoat is a tale of metamorphosis. Once upon a time She’s car represented protection and freedom of movement. At the opening of the play, the car is literally the vehicle that has brought She to the brink of her transformation. Then, at the edge of the remnant forest, its meanings begin to change.