What has Harry Potter always been about, really? Beneath the magic, the escapism, the adventures? Every moment of every story is set on unshakeable foundations that count for something stronger than the enchanting thrill of the wizarding world: love, and friendship. The real magic of JK Rowling’s world is that the qualities which define it exist in our own more staid world too.
So here were are again, for almost six hours of theatre, in a world that lets you talk about love and friendship and not sound trite as all hell. Rowling says again and again that even if it costs you to be in love or to be a good friend – in fact, sometimes it can (and sometimes it should) cost your life – it’s worth it, always. Who hasn’t read the books and longed with deep longing for friends like Ron and Hermione? For love like they love? It’s not unattainable, but it doesn’t come for nothing.
Does this sound naïve? A little cringeworthy? Perhaps, but the huge enticement of The Cursed Child is that, once again, it doesn’t matter. Here too, eighteen years after the end of the last book those same qualities – love and friendship – lace The Cursed Child like sugar in coffee, making darkness and bitterness bearable.
But what the play explores in a way that the books don’t and can’t is the ongoing joy and trauma of parental love. Sure, parental love is a driving force in the books, but its presence is marked by its absence. Harry’s parents died when he was a baby, it’s one of the first things we are told in The Philosopher’s Stone, and it’s one supreme action of a mother pushed to the extreme that sets seven years of plot chugging along. Harry’s mum Lily sacrifices herself for her child, and it protects Harry for the rest of his life.
The Cursed Child, on the other hand, shows the daily grind of parenting and every decision parents have to make to keep their children safe, to make them feel loved, to help them flourish. We see Harry having to tell his children off. On holiday once, 2001 maybe, after a mighty row with my parents – they never wanted to see me again and I certainly never wanted to see them – I dived straight under my bed and re-read The Philosopher’s Stone wishing that I was an orphan, jealous of the solitude of Harry’s cupboard under the stairs, desperate for the friends that he had in the world that he inhabited. What a horrific thing, to wish away one’s parents. But fed on orphan narratives and enticed by the adventures that come with a lack of parents, fired up by torrid hormones raging through adolescent blood, what a natural thing too. Rowling captures the psychology of puberty like no one else.
Harry and Ginny have three children, Ron and Hermione have two, Draco has a son. In an instant, Rowling and co-writer Jack Thorne establish that these new protagonists aren’t copies of our familiar heroes. Albus Severus Potter, Rose Granger Weasley and Scorpius Malfoy forge their own path and that’s what drives the story. There’s a reason that so many scenes under John Tiffany’s direction are packed with suitcases that stand for headstones or chairs or any number of other things. These are stories, and these are characters, that come with a colossal amount of baggage. The play would be almost unfathomable without having read the books, in the way it packs in as many callbacks as possible and puts itself into a position that allows it to revive long-dead characters. This is a fan’s world, and it don’t mean nothing without some pre-existing love for that world.
That said, from the off it’s clear that The Cursed Child isn’t afraid to re-evaluate what seemed more simple in the books. Isn’t afraid to muddy some of the waters. This story exists in the same canon as the books, it’s a continuation of them, but the decade of silence since Deathly Hallows in 2007 has allowed for a distance that means The Cursed Child is defined against the books as much as by them. It’s not only for us, the audience, that the actions of Harry, Ron and Hermione have passed into legend; the next generation of characters, 18 years later, have been brought up on the same stories too. And what’s it like to be the child of myth? To live in the shadow of legends?
Albus and Scorpius, the play’s main characters, read the legends like we did. And wanted the adventures like we wanted them. And what do they get instead? A fragile peace. Waiting for their sequel but not sure if it’s ever going to happen. This is about legacy, Rowling’s and her characters’, in and outside of the narrative. That’s maybe the only thing that needs to be revealed about the plot: children aren’t entirely like their parents, sequels aren’t entirely like their source material. So by following Albus and his generation it becomes clear that the story is a metaphor for the play itself; a justification of its being a play rather than a book. The Cursed Child – in a new medium, off the page and given form on a stage – is a teenager rebelling against its perfect paper parents.
New perspectives suggest aspects of Rowling’s world that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. For one thing, she’s redefining Slytherin so that the story is still, importantly, about misfits but of a different kind. It’s a challenge to herself and the world she created; that maybe it was not without its flaws.
Nor were the characters. Harry has carried with him into adulthood some of the qualities that made him extraordinary as a child. But they’re no longer charming, they no longer make him a hero. His arrogance and egoism are enlarged by being older and by being a parent. Rowling stokes sparks of dissent. It’s time to see boy wonder Potter through fresh eyes – the eyes of someone for whom Harry’s celebrity is damaging: his son. We see the son harbour contempt for his father, and we pity the boy, Albus Severus Potter. Calling him Albus, one character remarks, ‘seemed a great weight to place upon the boy’. We reflect or reject our parents in shades: it might be eye colour or traits or tastes in food, but we don’t match them entirely.
Take, for example, the disdain and disgust felt by Albus when at one point Hermione and Harry, as adults, decide to keep hold of an important object that they should have destroyed. They’re still children, just as all adults are. The decisions they make are the ones that console them, make themselves feel good and relive their past glory. They’re not any wiser. But they kind of have to be, because they’re parents and leaders now. It costs more to make a mistake.
From whatever moment it was that Harry Potter became the unstoppable global phenomenon, the brand, the franchise, there have existed two Potters in my head: one, the public side of a book and film series that sparked Newsround reports about overnight queues at bookshops, that had Daniel Radcliffe’s face as its emblem, that provoked mockery from adults who couldn’t find their inner child. The other was my Harry Potter. The faces I’d given to the characters as I read, the geography of Hogwarts, the sounds and sights and tastes and smells – all the details that coalesce in the imagination to make the fictitious become real – but also the emotion. Because, as powerful as your imagination is, words on a page that describe, say, a Firebolt or a Hippogriff or a Time Turner, those objects aren’t actually, physically real. But sadness at a character’s death is real enough.
Theatre, however, is an act of sharing and how do I share something that I possess and cherish so intensely? Reacting along with or against 1,400 other people, with other fans, is a strange thing. But it’s also a thrill to see this story on stage and to be part of an audience that responds so vividly with gasps and laughs. It’s also a joy – to address a prickly point – to take the same seats for Parts One and Two and sit next to the same strangers so that they’re not such strangers by the end. Yeah, I’m ok with two parts.
John Tiffany adamantly uses theatrical language to tell this story. Bits of imagination are made real, like the moving stairs of Hogwarts turning into a kind of staircase ballet. There is always something happening, scores of people moving on stage and much of the story plays out in fast moving vignettes – it takes almost an hour before the plot proper is established. During these moving montages Imogen Heap’s breathy, layered music pumps its strong beats underneath, staunchly setting this apart from the sweep and grandeur of John Williams’s film scores.
The 42 strong cast play on Christine Jones’s set under Neil Austin’s clever lighting, using gloom and darkness brilliantly to hide the inner workings of some of the illusions, to have characters appear and disappear like magic. Jones’s design burns into the mind from long exposure, like a faint image seared into photographic film. It’s a chamber, full of its own secrets with trapdoors and hidden openings in the wooden panelling, and a revolve that rarely stops revolving. It’s a Great Hall too, made of stone and great arching iron eaves, like all the majestic places Rowling describes in the books. And it barely changes for all six hours. It’s a Room of Requirement, quite blank, in which staircases, beds, desks appear as need.
It’s also designed to work with Jamie Harrison’s illusions – just as every element in the production cooperates. Because let’s talk about magic for a moment. It’s difficult to execute well, which is why magicians can devote years to perfecting just one sleighting of the hand, it looks shoddy when done badly and it’s an absolute necessity in a stage play of Harry Potter. It’s a thrill, then, that Harrison’s illusions are perfectly judged, used in moderation and combining simplicity – sparks flying from ends of wands – with gasp-inducing illusion, like wizards sucked into telephone booths.
But it never attempts to be filmic in its illusions – in fact Tiffany, Thorne and Rowling very deliberately put some distance between the play and the film world, which has always been slightly unsatisfactory because of its restricted space, compressed plots, heavy-handed design and branding and merchandising. The distance comes in simple ways, like a different pronunciation of ‘Voldemort’, and the big ones like casting choices.
Casting. Yep. Whatever the nonsensical furore, Noma Dumezweni is a perfect adult Hermione. She’s bossy and assured, bordering on arrogance, a formidable matriarchal figure in bright purple robes. Jamie Parker as Harry brilliantly fleshes out a character who has always been hard to pin down. One of his strengths in the novels is his blankness, his everyman appeal that allows the reader to sort of inhabit him. Parker makes him more concrete, capturing two faces of parenting: the forceful, fearless side that shows when he talks to Albus, and the anxious remnants of the uncertain child when he talks to Ginny. In one short montage, Harry stands still and alone on the revolve and the world moves on around him. To be Harry Potter and do all the deeds that made that name famous, then to settle down: Parker’s manner and expression capture, movingly, just what that does to a person.
But the adults aren’t the focus. It’s the younger actors who are the play’s focus, and they’re the ones who steal it too. From Sam Clemmett’s Albus, dorky teen when he’s with his friends and whining teen when he’s with his dad, torn by his family history between deference and difference. Best of all is Scorpius, played by Anthony Boyle. Don’t want to give too much away, though.
For all six hours the story is relentless. Thorne, Tiffany and Rowling have created something of great magnitude in the twisting, thrusting, doubling and perplexing story, combined with the perfectly executed ambition of its stagecraft too. When it’s not in montage mode, Thorne and Rowling have their characters talk long and hard about friendship. Rowling makes what’s naive seem to be the most important things in the world. Those words that make you cringe in the real world actually have value in her universe: love, friendship. It’s too corny to say them. Much better to feel them. To live them. And that’s what this play is: to live in a world where they matter, just for a few hours, to chip away just a little at the thick armour of cynicism that it’s too easy to develop. To feel a bit raw, a bit innocent, less alone, and loved.
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