Sometimes it’s the stage directions that tell you more about a play than the dialogue. In the Harry Potter play, properly named Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the stage directions tell you all you need to know:
“And suddenly Harry appears from nowhere beside Albus as steam expands all over the stage. We’re back on platform nine and three-quarters and time has ticked on mercilessly”.
This is true Harry Potter. This is designed for a very big theatrical stage. And, with the help of a sizeable budget and an excellent cast and director, the magic is intact.
With superstar maverick director John Tiffany at the helm of the production, it makes sense that he is included in the triumvirate of writers along with J.K. Rowling and Brit playwright Jack Thorne, whose Christmases must have come at once, Harry Potter style, when the phone call came from his agent.
What is clear from this script, is that J.K. Rowling’s imagination has not put Harry Potter to bed, regardless of the other writing she has pursued since killing off Voldermort in the final book of the series, H.P. and the Deathly Hallows (2007). In that book’s epilogue, we are delivered the first glimpse of the future. Nineteen years have passed and Harry and Ginny Weasley are married with three children, James, Albus and Lily. Ron and Hermione have Rose and Hugo, and Albus is about to head off to Hogwarts, deeply anxious about ending up in Slytherin House. Harry advises him that the Sorting Hat would ultimately choose, taking into account personal bias.
The play opens where the book left us, at King’s Cross, as the two families farewell Albus and Rose as they climb aboard the Hogwarts’ Express. Rose reminds Albus that their parents first met on this train and that it has the potential to ignite life-long friendships.
“I’m a Granger-Weasley, you’re a Potter,” says Rose, in a Mitfordesque acknowledgement of social hierarchies, “everyone will want to be friends with us, we’ve got the pick of anyone we want”.
Unlike a whiz-bang Hollywood movie, where the effects replace story, here they emerge organically out of the narrative, which is, like all the Harry Potter that has gone before it, moving, funny and complexly human.
Sitting alone in a carriage is Scorpius Malfoy, the son of Draco – an unlikely candidate to be friends with Albus and Rose, but winningly (on the part of the writers) becomes Albus’s closest ally in the story ahead. The Sorting Hat inexplicably chooses Slytherin for Albus and then time jumps us forward to Lily’s commencement at Hogwarts (Gryffindor) and the adult world of Harry and Ginny.
Rowling’s brilliance has always been in merging the essentially human dimensions of childhood – the humour, the anxieties, the frustrations, the sorrows – with a detailed imaginary world. Harry, Hermione and Ron were vessels for the emotional lives of the children (and adults) who read the books, at the same time as providing them with a compelling antidote to real life. The merging of utterly believable and recognisable characters with an immaculately conceived alternative universe was the perfect blend of truth and fiction.
In the stage play, that same merging is realised, at least on the page. Like a couple of Baby Boomers trying to work out how to turn off an iPhone 6, Harry and Ginny note the confusing new model of the Time-Tuner: “Apparently wizardry has moved on since we were kids”. When Harry complains to Albus that Professor McGonagall is not entirely pleased with his progress, Albus’s teenage truculence will be recognisable to all parents: “So what would you like me to do? Magic myself popular? Conjure myself into a new house? Transfigure myself into a better student? Just cast a spell, Dad, and change me into what you want me to be, okay?”
In this two-part play, which recently opened on the West End, most of the familiar Harry Potter characters stage a gratifying return, with the plot so invested in the magical powers of time travel to revisit, rejig and renegotiate the past. But the most captivating characters in the story are Albus and Scorpius, both of whom must do very human battle with the issues of sons and fathers, inheritance, identity and freedom.
Albus is the middle child (and that one decision by Rowling has changed the heroic capacities of middle children everywhere), understandably resentful of his popular older brother, James, and of course, his father. The challenge of making Harry’s offspring more charismatic than (or at least equally charismatic as) Harry has been brilliantly met. Albus gives as good as he gets and is ultimately more of an existential game-changer for Harry than any amount of Death Eaters and so on in Harry’s past:
“The thing that scares me most, Albus Severus Potter,” observes Harry to his remarkable son, “is being a dad to you. Because I’m operating without wires here. Most people at least have a dad to base themselves on – and either try to be or try not to be. I’ve got nothing – or very little. So I’m learning, okay?”
There is barely a page of the script one does not yearn to see immediately staged, so replete is it with volatile time-shifts, mercurial wand-zapping, invisible locks slamming into place and glimpses of Voldemort emerging from other characters, the transfiguration “slow and monstrous”. Unlike a whiz-bang Hollywood movie, where the effects replace story, here they emerge organically out of the narrative, which is, like all the Harry Potter that has gone before it, moving, funny and complexly human.
Jack Thorne is currently adapting Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for the BBC, a perfect follow-up to this project. As co-creators, he, Rowling and Tiffany have had to conquer arguably the hardest of all transformations to get right, characters already perfectly realised inside our own imaginations into the very real, three-dimensional confines of a stage and the anarchic qualities of stage collaboration. A writer can control the tone of a story on the page. On the stage — even the smallest alteration by a cast member (and cast members also change) can disrupt an intention, alter the tone, break the spell.
No stage-play can be judged in terms of the flat black and white font. It’s not a literary form, it’s razzle-dazzle, mood and motion, a resonant voice, a tender glance, an unexpected gesture, a musical note, an angled light, the feeling in the room. But a good script helps.
You can buy Harry Potter and the Cursed Child here