Helen Norton and Jonathan White discuss how their show is 'more an amplification than an adaptation'
Although To Hell in a Handbag uses Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest as a foundation, co-writers and performers Helen Norton and Jonathan White are clear that this is 'more an amplification than an adaptation'. Looking at two minor characters – Canon Chasuble and Miss Prism – from Wilde's wry satire of Victorian society, the script exposes the hypocrisy and cunning of those forced to the margins of the action.
Norton explains that their director, Conor Hanratty, had cast them 'in something entirely different' but commented that he had first seen her as Miss Prism, the governess who famously lost her handbag in Importance, and that White would be a perfect Chasuble. When a later production of Importance failed to cast them, 'we decided we'd write our own play because I think the characters deserve their own play.' Using an actor's approach to developing character, Norton and White created an adventure that sees the pair entangled in romance, fraud and betrayal.
The expanded characters take their cues from Wilde – 'for instance, Miss Prism makes reference to a stain on her handbag from a temperance beverage, and we thought she might have a problem with alcohol,' says White – and the pair present a production that is steeped in the language and culture of Victorian England.
'One of the joys of writing the play was the research,' says White. 'What were the Victorians' headlines stories? So we feature the activities of the Prince of Wales, the politics in the Church of England, and the innovations of the times: the railways and the telescope and scientific advance.' From this historical context, the drama centres on the two's schemes for financial stability and social respectability.'
'I think they might have some … notorious traits,' Norton laughs. 'And it is plausible in the Victorian era that what you see on the surface is not what is going on underneath. I think Miss Prism has been searching for stability for a long, long time: she has lived on her wits all her life. She is not a monstrous character, she is quite sad, and she has to do certain things that are not quite legal.' Chasuble, equally, 'has had to see how far his doctrine won't carry him in terms of putting bread on the table,' says White. 'We have this idea of Victorian morality – but they were up to all sorts! And if they have a fallible side, what has brought it about, and how do they justify it to themselves?'
This tension between financial worry, social facades and mail-based skullduggery drives Chasuble and Prism into each other's arms, in the remarkably formal and restrained manner of the time. For White, this led to a witty script that retains the marks of Wilde's influence. 'There is a fascination with costume drama and the Victorian use of English, the wonderfully arcane dialect: there is the deliciousness of the language, and seeing upright people on shifting sands,' he says.
'It has a lot of recognisable hooks for an audience: the work of Oscar Wilde is something people aren't unfamiliar with. You don't need to know the play, we tell you the whole story, with a few Easter eggs for those who do know it. And we were keen to be true to the characters in the play, as opposed to taking them in – excuse the pun – wildly different directions.'