Saturday, August 20, 2016

Play It Again: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Jamie Parker as Harry Potter, in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

The more you think about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the odder it becomes. It’s a two-part play, which serves as the long-awaited sequel to J.K. Rowling’s blockbuster series of books about the world of a young wizard (as well as the often excellent movie adaptations), but it’s not entirely clear to me why it seemed so essential to Rowling and her collaborators that this be the case. The play is credited to Jack Thorne, who recently adapted the film Let the Right One In for the stage. However, Thorne, Rowling, and theatre director John Tiffany all share credit for the story. It’s currently running in the West End in London, and a Broadway transfer seems inevitable.

For all of the excitement surrounding Cursed Child, it’s doesn’t feel quite as essential as the books in the series. As a friend who read it observed, it often plays like fan fiction. This is in part due to the way that Rowling & Co. have constructed the narrative, which appears to be concerned as much with revisiting the high points of the original series as in further developing our sense of the wizarding world and the next generation of its denizens. The play begins with the poignant final scene of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, an epilogue that shows how the youthful protagonists of the series have aged into parenthood and near-middle age. Rowling gives her characters a coda that’s mostly happy, but not without touches of melancholy: the heroes of the books have become older, and in some cases balder and fatter, and some of the same anxieties that they once faced live on in their children, particularly Harry and Ginny Potter’s younger son, Albus, who’s starting his first year at the wizarding school Hogwarts. From that opening scene, Cursed Child goes on to follow the adventures of Albus and his new friend Scorpius Malfoy, son of Harry’s former schoolyard nemesis. Meanwhile, Harry, Hermione, and Ron must face a new challenge to the peace and prosperity that have settled on their world since the defeat of the evil wizard Voldemort.

Photo by Manuel Harlan.
I can’t deny that much of the pleasure of the play comes from the chance to check in on the old gang again, as well as see what becomes of their progeny. Rowling managed to develop her characters into complex and lovable figures, and there’s a familiarity to them that feels warm and comforting. It’s unclear how much of the new character development in the play is due to Thorne (and, to a presumably lesser degree, Tiffany), but some of the main figures in Cursed Child are welcome additions, particularly the misfit friends Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy. They’re outsiders to an even greater extent than the original Harry-Hermione-Ron trio, and the way in which they respond to that marginalization by investing more deeply in their friendship is an interesting alternative to the usually more extroverted impulses of much young-adult fiction.

Albus’ misfit status also introduces a welcome dynamic with his father, Harry. The tension that grows between them as Albus embraces his anti-social tendencies leads to some moments where his hero father comes off looking rather poorly. Harry’s failings have to do with much smaller-scale and more personal matters than the fate of the world, but that paradoxically makes them seem more important, and helps make him more sympathetic and human. Indeed, there were times that I wished the play could get away with being an examination of the minor triumphs and little tragedies of life in the Potter family instead of leading to a showdown with the forces of evil, although I’ll admit that the climactic confrontation turns into a struggle that’s ultimately much more internal, and therefore all the more poignant for being so.

Catching up with Harry and his comrades is comforting, but that feeling of familiarity also poses a problem: there’s a certain degree of stasis inherent to the franchise at this point, since Rowling and her collaborators are hardly likely to kill off a beloved character like Hermione. That makes for an especially strong contrast to the end of the book series, in which Rowling managed to create narrative suspense in part by ruthlessly slaughtering both important characters like Albus Dumbledore and lesser characters such as Hedwig the owl and Fred Weasley. The creative team’s reluctance to shake up their fictional universe also makes the matter of introducing a villain a problem; even though the books came to a natural end with Harry’s defeat of Voldemort, it would be nearly impossible to introduce and build up a Big Bad of similar significance in a single play, however long. That means that the Dark Lord – or at least someone very closely connected to him - gets called up from the afterlife to serve as antagonist once again. As for the story, much of it relies upon the familiar trope of the what-if scenario, a sort of wizarding version of It’s a Wonderful Life meets The Man in the High Castle. As intriguing as these scenarios can be, they don’t have the same sense of high stakes, since there’s an implicit assumption that we’ll return to the status quo once the plot plays out.

Poppy Miller and Jamie Parker in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

As far as the style of the play, it’s striking how much it relies on developing a cinematic feel. I don’t mean that as a criticism, per se, but it speaks to my confusion over why Rowling chose to employ this particular medium to tell this story. The early scenes move quickly, often rapidly shifting from one locale to another, and in one case rapidly skipping over a few years in quick succession (that also contributes to a tendency to include a little too much exposition in some scenes). There’s also, at least to judge from the stage directions, a heavy emphasis on spectacular visual effects. That’s not unwelcome, since considering plays strictly as words on a page is a reductive approach that ignores the way those words combine with the other sensory aspects of theatergoing to create a complex experience. If anything, the sense of incompleteness that comes from merely reading Cursed Child makes me all the more curious to see what it looks like onstage. I was reminded of director John Tiffany’s work a decade ago at the National Theatre of Scotland on Black Watch, a documentary drama about the experiences of a British regiment deployed in Iraq. I’ve only seen a video of the production, but even then, Tiffany’s fast-moving and innovative use of traverse staging made for a compelling theatrical experience that told a story that would appear to be difficult to stage effectively.

Harry Potter and Cursed Child’s success is assured, no matter what critics write about the script or the stage production. I’m intrigued to see how it plays onstage, especially since we’ve come to associate the franchise so closely with the movies that it spawned. It’s hardly the best new play in recent memory, but it’s still a welcome chance to immerse one’s self in Rowling’s universe once again.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at@theaterhistory.

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