We had the chance to talk to Jonathan White about his new play – To Hell in a Handbag, which he wrote and performs with Helen Norton. We asked him about ‘Show in a bag’, Oscar Wilde and the enduring power of Father Ted. You can see the results below.
Tiger Dublin Fringe – To Hell in a Handbag – The Secret Lives of Canon Chasuble and Miss Prism
Bewley’s Café Theatre @ Powerscourt – 12- 24 September
Written & Performed by Helen Norton & Jonathan White
How long have you known your co-star and co-writer Helen?
We’ve known each other over twenty years but apart from one rehearsed reading in the Abbey and providing dozens of background voices for the film “Michael Collins” we’ve never actually worked together. That was the real impetus for this show.
The ‘Show in a bag’ series has produced some of the best work from the Fringe in recent years. How does it work?
It is a remarkable initiative. Tiger Dublin Fringe, the Irish Theatre Institute and Fishamble have come together to put a structure in place where an actor (or two actors) can construct their own show, produce it in the Fringe Festival and then take it to the world if they choose. It’s a benefit-in-kind offering – everything from dramaturgy, rehearsal space, marketing advice, as well as providing a venue for the first performances and practical help with the show’s future. It doesn’t hand it to you on a plate but it certainly goes a long way to bridge the gap between an idea and a finished piece of theatre. And as you say some of the most remarkable – and successful – shows in the Fringe in the last few years have been Shows in a Bag.
This play is about some of the minor characters in The Importance of Being Earnest. How did you come up with the idea? Will we learn much about the characters we didn’t know before?
Helen & I have long bemoaned the short-sightedness of Irish theatre companies in not casting us together as Canon Chasuble and Miss Prism. We were harping on this theme again in February and as a parting shot, one of us said “We should write it ourselves”. Within a week the idea took hold and we began developing a play within a play which shows what the two get up to when they’re not onstage in The Importance. We certainly learn a lot more; some of it develops tantalising clues in Wilde’s text, some of it follows lines of research about life in Victorian England for people of their station and some of it is a flight of giddy fancy. And we do find out why Miss Prism put the baby in the handbag!
Is it a difficult task to base a work on something written by Oscar Wilde? Do you worry about your writing being compared to his?
We knew from the start that we could not and would not compete. But we reasoned that the aphorisms and bon mots of the upper-class characters in The Importance were a luxury that our characters could not afford. They’re too busy making ends meet. That said, we wanted to be sure that the language was true to the period and had a beauty of its own, as befits two such well-read and fastidious individuals.
What else do you hope to see during the Fringe festival?
Apart from the other three Shows in a Bag (The Wickedness of Oz, The Humours of Bandon and Looking Deadly) which of course we’re dying to see, top of my list is The Aeneid from Collapsing Horse – I was involved in some of the development workshops along the way. But I also want to see two superb actors at work: Pom Boyd in This Beach and Shane O’Reilly in Override. I’m very excited by Molly Molumby’s Half Light. And my highlight will undoubtedly be someone I was first married to (onstage) 20 years ago and who I’ve had the good fortune to work with again and again ever since: Deirdre O’Kane in 1Dee.
You had a brief appearance on Father Ted. Do you still get asked about it? Had you any idea how iconic the programme would become?
60 seconds onscreen and 20 years later, it is still a magnificent calling-card to have. It means I’m cool with my daughters’ contemporaries – although it produced funny looks from their primary school teachers every time it was shown. While its quality was assured, I don’t think any of us guessed at its longevity. It’s something I’m very proud of.