Event of the week: To Hell in a Handbag

Like the Oscar Wilde play that inspired it, To Hell in a Handbag imagines characters spinning complicated, comic fictions that bend reality to their will

Helen Norton and Jonathan White in To Hell in a Handbag. Photograph: Ste Murray

Helen Norton and Jonathan White in To Hell in a Handbag. Photograph: Ste Murray

 

Bewley’s Café Theatre, Dublin. Until Sep 7th 1pm bewleyscafetheatre.com

Many of the epigrams and witticisms in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (A Trivial Comedy for Serious People), are designed to dazzle. But some have more wicked intention beneath their glittering surface. Take Miss Prism and her swift defence of the novel against a withering criticism of happy endings. “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily,” Miss Prism says of her own efforts in writing. “That is what fiction means.”

How, then, do things end for Miss Prism and Rev Canon Chasuble, wonders To Hell in a Handbag, an enjoyable two-hander written by Helen Norton and Jonathan White, who also perform the two roles. And, given that the first character wears her haughtiness over a deep dark secret, and the second, a “Doctor of Divinity” seems guided by more earthly passions, just how good or bad are they anyway?

Like Tom Stoppard’s audacious experiment in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which chiseled open Hamlet to linger with two minor characters in their downtime, Norton and White have chosen a play in which a lot may be happening in the wings. The depths of shadows in the Importance of Being Earnest is well understood, where a man can be known as Ernest in the city but Jack in country, where double meanings dance in the dialogue and double lives abound in the plot. (The play debuted shortly before Wilde’s infamous trial began, and it was pulled from the stage as details of his own hidden identity emerged.)

Plot twists

To Hell in a Handbag imagines Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble pursuing double lives of their own (as the plot unfurls, tortuous with plot twists, perhaps even triple). When the governess visits the clergyman in his rectory, they discover, little by little, that the truth of each other’s life is rarely pure and never simple. How has Chasuble come to find evidence of a blackmailer in their midst, extorting money from society’s great and good? Why should an intimate letter of Miss Prism’s, bound for an agony aunt in a London periodical, have found its way to the voluminous correspondences on Chasuble’s desk? And just what connects a valuable stamp collection to Chasuble’s valiant missionary work for the distant island of Naraka?

There’s always a tingling feeling of trespass for any writers who decide to insert themselves into the domain of a classic, and might be disturbed in the act at any time: Who do you think you are and what are you doing here? But Norton and White make a witty writing team, finding comedy in the characters’ well-established but largely unexplored romantic tension, while teasing out the gentle ironies and wild hypocrisies of the leisured classes.

Like the play that inspired them, everybody here is spinning fictions, some more plausible than others, and the sly game of both plays is that reality seems to correspond. Life doesn’t imitate art, to borrow a gag, it imitates bad potboilers.

Nimbly directed by Conor Hanratty, upon an economically designed but pleasingly well detailed set, its disputation and rejoinders might remind you of another writer too. “Oscar and George Bernard cannot be reconciled,” joshed a contemporary, “When I’m Wilde about Shaw I’m not so Shaw about Wilde.” To Hell in a Handbag may not quite reconcile them either, but in its serious regard for the trivial, and the great fun Norton and White have with outward solemnity, it exists happily between them.

Or as White’s aghast Chasuble puts it while marvelling at the refractions of one of Prism’s schemes, “My goodness, such profound thought put to such perverse ends.” Not only is that a good teaser for the mystery story this play conceals, it’s not a bad synopsis of Earnest either.

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