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Helen Norton and Jonathan White: To Hell In A Handbag

By | Published on Thursday 27 July 2017

In much the same way Tom Stoppard reckoned that ‘Hamlet’ characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern deserved their own play, Helen Norton and Jonathan White couldn’t help wondering what else we’d discover if we got to spend a little more time with Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble, two minor characters in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance Of Being Earnest’.
Well, now we know, courtesy of their new play ‘To Hell In A Handbag’. Having heard great things about the piece after its debut at the Dublin Fringe, I decided to throw some questions at the both of them as they head to Edinburgh for a festival run at the Assembly Rooms.

CC: Tell us the basic premise of ‘To Hell in A Handbag’.
HN+JW: It’s a ‘companion play’ to ‘The Importance Of Being Earnest’ by Oscar Wilde. We focus on two minor characters from that play – Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble – and what they get up to when they’re offstage in Wilde’s play. As Tom Stoppard said in ‘Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead’,
“look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else” … and that’s what we do. So ours happens in real-time over the course of the action of acts two and three of ‘The Importance’.

CC: Where did the idea come from to write a play around these two characters?
HN+JW: It was born of our frustration at the theatre world’s singular failure to cast us in these parts in the original play, a casting which we felt was not only ideal but preordained! In desperation, we had no option but to write the play ourselves.

CC: Did the story emerge from the characters or did you already have a basic plot in mind?
HN+JW: Very much the former. We looked for the tiny clues about their background and history which Oscar had left us in his original. But we also discussed what their lives as satellites to the celestial bodies of the upper class might be like and the possibly grim reality of making ends meet.

CC: Does it help to know ‘The Importance Of Being Earnest’ when seeing your play? I mean, I assume most Fringe-goers do – but would it be a different piece if they didn’t?
HN+JW: We have been assured by many audience members unfamiliar with ‘The Importance’ that they missed nothing, that the story was crystal clear. That said, there are hidden treats for those familiar with the ‘first’ play, which occasionally overlaps with the world of ours.

CC: Do you think Oscar Wilde missed a trick not employing these characters more?HN+JW: No, we think they served his purpose admirably as exemplars of stuffy middle-class morality confronted with the less than admirable behaviour of their ‘betters’. We, however, have the luxury of digging a little deeper below that surface of respectability.

CC: What do you think he’d make of ‘To Hell in A Handbag’?
HN+JW: We like to think he would enjoy it … safe in the knowledge that we posed no threat to his place in the pantheon.

CC: You performed the piece at the Dublin Fringe Festival. How did it go?
HN+JW: Very, very well. The Dublin Fringe is slightly more youth-oriented than its Edinburgh counterpart and someone suggested that we probably increased the age demographic of participants by about 150%! That said, we got a very warm reception from critics and audiences alike.

CC: Has the piece evolved at all ahead of its Edinburgh premiere?
HN+JW: We’ve just completed a five-week run in Dublin which was more about match-fitness than major surgery. That said, playing it to a wide variety of audiences allowed us to not only shape and hone but also nip and tuck.

CC: What made you decide to bring the production to the Edinburgh Fringe?
HN+JW: Like everyone in Irish theatre, we are keenly aware that Edinburgh is the annual shop window of international theatre. More presenters from around the world have the opportunity to see us in four weeks in Edinburgh than would see us in four years in Dublin. Plus the Irish/Scottish affinity reassures us that we will find welcoming audiences.

CC: How did you two of you start collaborating?
HN+JW: We have known each other for 20 years but have never had the opportunity to play together before. That was the main motivating factor which led to us dreaming up this play.

CC: What’s it like both writing and performing the piece – how does it compare to acting in someone else’s play?
HN+JW: Well, when the lines aren’t going in – or staying in – you’ve no-one to blame but yourselves. The corollary of that is that if a line isn’t working you can improve it or lose it with impunity. That said, we have received much praise for the script and, as first-time playwrights, that’s particularly gratifying.

CC: Are there any other minor characters from other plays who you think deserve a story of their own?
HN+JW: There are undoubtedly. And not just minor characters, but also characters who play important roles in the plot but never actually turn up. And we’re not just talking about Godot.

Helen Norton and Jonathan White performed ‘To Hell In A Handbag’ at the Assembly Rooms at Edinburgh Festival 2017.