Earnest attempt to adapt comedy

NAOMI ARNOLD
Last updated 12:43 17/01/2013
The Importance of Being Earnest
GLENN BISDEE
COMMITTED: Members of Body in Space, from left Hamish Parkinson, Laura Irish, Roger Sanders and Daniel Allan perform in their new comedy The Importance of Being Earnest.

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Up at Fairfield House, some new summer fun is brewing. Nelson professional theatre company Body in Space has been rehearsing its version of Oscar Wilde's classic comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest since December - and there's heavy emphasis on the comedy.

Friday night sees Fairfield's meadow transformed into a stage. The four comic actors and musicians - Roger Sanders, Daniel Allan, Laura Irish, and Hamish Parkinson - play various characters, with Lisa Norriss directing.

Earnest is Wilde's most popular work, a farcical social comedy that skewers the conventions of Victorian London. Norriss and Allan have adapted it for a modern audience, playing with the idea of melodrama as a style of theatre, with the acting and energy heightened to suit an outdoor stage and audiences of several hundred.

They've turned it into a play rich with silliness, laughs, and audience interaction, deleting entire scenes and turning them into catchy songs - including a rap (you can expect the kids to go home singing about cucumber sandwiches). They've ensured Wilde's sharp jokes and layered wit translate 120 years ahead.

Artist and company member Bridget Sanders has made all the scenery and props from cardboard, reflecting the superficial social constructs of the Victorian age.

"We wanted it to be fun and we wanted to make it accessible for a contemporary audience, because we can't really relate to the class-system jokes," Norriss says.

With a troupe of actors also trained in improvisation, there's plenty of off-the-cuff humour as well.

It's the third time the company has staged their annual outdoor summer show; past productions are The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and All the Fairy Tales You Know (and Some You Don't).

With audiences able to bring blankets, cushions, and a picnic, they're becoming a summer tradition at Fairfield, with a week-long run that usually sees the meadow packed as word spreads.

"We get people coming up to us saying they've seen [a show] three times," Norriss says.

She says part of Body in Space's ethos is ensuring ticket "prices" for their summer comedies are by donation after the show.

"One of the most magic things is seeing the community together laughing. We really enjoy that and it actually works out for us; everybody gives a little something."

After this show's over, there will be another busy year for the 17 Body in Space company members. They will take The Importance of Being Earnest to the Hamilton Garden Arts Festival in February with four shows over two days.

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Norriss says the company has been "constantly growing" since she and Allan started it three years ago.

They teach more than 50 people in theatre, yoga, and improvisation, including developing Nelson's pool of dedicated youth talent. This year they have taken on two interns, school leavers Isaac Thomas and Luke Burke.

Norriss says the company is also looking for a naming rights sponsor this year.

"These are professional actors and we would like to pay them a little more."

As Fairfield House's resident theatre company, their performance record in Nelson is busy and varied. It includes monthly Theatre Royal comedy improv show The Deep End; Macbeth; Antarctic drama Terra Nova; Metamorphoses; The Firework Maker's Daughter; and The Twits, the latter two a co-production with Theatre Alive.

This year, about 10 company members have committed to Company Crafting, Body in Space's daily training and creative incubator that will focus on making original physical theatre to be toured nationally and internationally, through existing connections in Germany, England, Japan, India, and the United States.

"We have a really multinational group [and] want to create a signature piece we're really proud of; that we want to take places," Norriss says.

"You're always working towards a production, but we always try to work in a way that if we never get to perform it, we still feel fulfilled. The rehearsal process is also an end - we're learning from it, we're growing as a group. Our ultimate goal is to keep open to growth."

  • The Importance of Being Earnest, Fairfield House meadow (inside if wet), January 18 to January 25, 6.30pm daily, with additional shows at 2pm on Saturday and Sunday. Donations gratefully received after the show. There will be food and drink vendors on site. Parking is limited; no BYO alcohol. Body in Space will hold an Open Day at Fairfield House on Sunday, February 10, from 1pm to 3pm.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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