London theatre trip (7): Jack Thorne (Story: J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany): Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Parts One and Two, Palace Theatre, London (Director: John Tiffany)
By Sascha Krieger
To a serious German theatre goer it feels almost like a sacrilege: Attending a theatre performance in order to have fun, be entertained and indulge in a never-ending wow effect. To an English mind, this is what theatre is all about. Nine years after the last novel and five years after the last film, Harry Potter is back. And not only has the former teenage wizard grown up – he has also found a new home. With Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling’s beloved and much celebrated world of witches and wizards enters the theatre. Two plays and a little under five hours later, it feels as if it never belonged anywhere else. It is, as avid readers know, a secret world, hidden from our eyes. Keeping secrets is at the heart of this theatre experience, too. Visitors get a badge and an email reminder to not spill the plot in order to allow future audiences a fresh look at the play. This curbs reviewer’s abilities to write about the show – or at least so it seems. But the experience the double evening offers is so much more than just the story, it is about that which the Harry Potter series has always put to the forefront: the magic of human imagination.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child picks up where the final novel ended. 19 years after the events of Harry potter and the Deathly Hallows, a now grown-up Harry sees off his younger son Albus on his first day of school. The play then follows Albus‘ journey, focuses on his relationship with his father and a rather unlikely-seeming friendship. The Harry Potter series was always about growing up, the challenges it pretends, the difficulties of finding one’s identities, the pressure of family and the redemption that lies in true friendship. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is no different. The relationship between Harry and Albus is at the play’s centre. Jamie Parker’s harassed, insecure, doubting Harry and Sam Clemmet’s gentle, sensitive, yet stubbornly rebellious teenage Albus would form the core of the two plays‘ journey, were there not a third centrepiece: Scorpius Malfoy, son of Harry’s arch-enemy Draco, who has his own struggles with the family, the world and crushing expectations. It speaks to the excellence of the play’s casting that even when an understudy takes over this pivotal role originally played by Anthony Boyle – as James LeLacheur did on the night attended by this reviewer – the geeky, bumbling, love- and friendship-seeking overly eager Scorpius remains one of the highlights of the evening(s).
What Rowling, writer Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany who all collaborated on the story have created together is a timeless coming of age tale about the difficulties children encounter when they’re finding out who they are and can be – and the parental struggles of adults trying to come to terms with children who turn out differently than expected and the challenge to redefine oneself as the next generation starts outgrowing the one before them. The scenes between father(s) and son(s) but also the dialogues between the struggling friends provide the emotional backbone of the plays. Precise – and often funny but occasionally devastating – one-liners and a spot-on, entirely plausible delivery create the real magic of the play, one it shares with the best of Rowling’s books: they feel completely believable and entirely relatable not only for the many younger people in the audience. As magical as the wizarding world is, its massive appeal has always been connected to the fact that it is a clear and obvious mirror of our own, slightly less magical world. What Albus – and Harry – go through, millions of people share everyday, even if they cannot make objects fly or time bend.
The magic lies mainly in John Tiffany’s direction: the sure-handed rhythm, the fast pace of the narration create the flow that sucks the audience right in. Even the beginning when we pass through three years in about 15 minutes doesn’t feel rushed, neither does any boredom set in once the scenes move into real-time. The scene connections help create the sense of a logical continuum, the narration is strong on action and reflexion at the same time, it allows for the flashy and for the quiet, it puts as much emphasis on the spectacular as on the every-day domestic drama. The action-packed and highly dramatic plot is securely anchored in the individual struggles of the protagonists, their actions attempts to escape perceived chains, to break free, create connections and find one’s way in the world while shedding one’s demons – a desire that the young share with the older generation.
But obviously, the success of a play based on the Harry Potter series must, first and foremost, convey the magic that has enthralled audiences and readers of all ages for the past almost 20 years (the first book was published in 1997). And this is a testament to the power of theatre. It starts with Christine Jones‘ ingenious set. The basis is a Victorian railway station which transforms easily into the great hall of Hogwarts school, offices, bedrooms and even a forest. It speaks to the audiences imagination as do the often astonishing special effects who recreate the book’s magic in a way that is both mind-boggling and entirely unassuming. The ease with which the effects ate integrated into the story-telling, the fact that they are never out to impress on their own, spur the imagination and convey one of Rowling’s key messages: the secret to humanity lies in their ability to dream, to imagine, to create. The audience is invited and encouraged to do just this. And if you can dream it why shouldn’t you be able to be it? Indeed, why not?