A Review of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” that Puzzles out but Keeps the Secrets

la-et-cm-harry-potter-and-the-cursed-child-london-2016-20150626Here’s a review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for readers waiting to buy tickets to the first United States production when they go on sale.  The two-part script published last July is billed as the eighth and final installment of the Harry Potter saga.  It is a bold, even risky, decision to bring the Harry Potter saga to its conclusion in a play, but how does it work on the page?584731898-britain-entertainment-literature-harry-potterThe Cursed Child is slick but elegant market-driven bookmaking, with the many stakeholders’ claims on the title page verso.  Everything about the design of the “Special Rehearsal Edition Script”–the dust jacket’s conservative typography, the shiny but not too shiny raised letters, and the discreet touch of gold–helps define the new franchise under the umbrella of the Harry Potter brand. The enigmatic logo does not say “for young readers” the way Mary Grandpre’s colorful artwork for the American Harry Potter covers do.  It’s as if the script were trying to distance itself from the fantasy series for kids from nine to ninety.  Some fans were disappointed that The Cursed Child was not a novel, but they should have been tipped off by the credits at the end that figure in playbills–original London cast, production credits down to the chaperones and house seats assistant, biographies of the original story team (Rowling, Tiffany, and Thorne), plus acknowledgments.

imageIs the script of The Cursed Child  for Potterheads only?   It certainly helps to belong to the fan base because the plot depends to large extent on the chronicle of year four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.   harry_potter_and_the_goblet_of_fire_us_coverThat was the year of the Triwizard Tournament, when fourteen-year-old Harry was pitted against his adolescent self, his friends, Hogwarts, unwelcome celebrity, and He Who Must Not Be Named.   If you can’t recall much about about Victor Krumm, Winky the house elf, and blast-ended skrewts you can get by, but remembering how Harry and Cedric Diggory’s relationship changed during the three tasks will make it easier to understand the characters’ motives and make sense of the plot.harry-cedric_xxxlarge42683340-54d9-0133-0b85-0e34a4cc753dAs there was no novel to dramatize, the script reveals just how much the wizards backstage were entrusted to flesh out the eighth Harry Potter. Propelled by what must be jaw-dropping special effects, Thorne’s play whirls from past, present, and a future that must not be allowed to take place.  However, the kaleidoscope of rapidly changing scenes shrinks the dialogue to rapid-fire exchanges.  This is not a shortcoming in scenes where there’s no time to be wasted, like the wonderful encounter between the Trolley Witch, Albus, and Scorpius.  But the scenes with Ginny and Harry, for example, might have made a greater impact if the characters had been given more lines to reveal themselves.  Perhaps this isn’t as noticeable in the darkened theater as in the living room.

The story proper begins when that inseparable odd couple, Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy, decide to right a great wrong in the past using a Time Turner, the magical object that played a critical role in The Prisoner of Azkaban.  Dumbledore gave Hermione a beta version so she could double up on her courses and he also hinted that it could be rather useful in rescuing Sirius and Buckbeak at the novel’s climax.   Unlike the Egyptian tyet in E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, the Time Turner is a precision instrument: either teenage wizards or powerful witches can operate without prior training.   The boys are too weighed down by Freudian angst and the urgency of rescuing the wizarding world to have any larks while time travelling.  They return just to a critical episode in Harry Potter’s childhood in order to improve the past, which includes a  visit to the school they would have attended if Voldemort had won the Battle of Hogwarts.  The brief reign of Dolores Umbridge as High Inquisitor in Order of the Phoenix foreshadows these nightmarish scenes, whose secondary function seems to be to create a reason to bring back Severus Snape for a cameo appearance.

The close alignment of play’s narrative arc with that of the novels was deliberate and II wonder if reflects a creative decision to allow the majority of people in the audience to re-experience the myth, rather than to draw them into the younger generation’s lives (The Cursed Child is no The Year of the Griffin).   Some of the new material seems coldly calculated to surprise: for example, on the Hogwarts Express, Albus and Scorpius become best friends forever at first sight, instead of continuing the enmity of their fathers.  Throughout most of the play,  the undercurrent of their banter suggests a strong physical attraction, but that turns out to be a tease, which let down  young gay fans in Northern Europe.  I suppose that Scorpius’ puppy love for Rose Granger Weasley hints at the possibility of intermarriage between antagonistic wizarding families and perhaps it is intended as a symbol of the passing of the age of Voldemort.

The casting of African-born British actress Noma Dumezweni as Hermione was another move after the fact to make the Harry Potter series more diverse.  I would love to see what Dumezweni made of the role.  In The Cursed Child Granger may be the Minister of Magic, but deep down she is still the trio’s fixer and problem-solver.  Now that she is the boss of Harry Potter, head of the Department of Magical Enforcement, and the dominant partner in her marriage to the goofy underachiever Ron Weasley, it is hard to accept that so little changed over the decades.  Her situation vis-a-vis Harry is something like that of Mary Lennox at the end of The Secret Garden–edged aside by the author so as not to detract from the hero’s triumph. It is ironic that Hermione–and all the other strong women in the Cursed Child– are defined largely by their men.

As important as mother’s love or friendship is to the Harry Potter series, in the end it’s the boys’ story.  The dynamics of The Cursed Child revolve more around the ties between fathers and their children.  In the play, Harry’s struggle to connect with his son Albus is contrasted with that of Draco and Scorpius Malfoy on the one hand and the inconsolable grief of  Amos Diggory on the other, with Dumbledore reappearing in his role as Harry’s father substitute as well.  Equally resonant are the examples  of children who  destroyed their fathers or those who longed to prove themselves to fathers they never knew.  By the end of the play, the ongoing tensions between the different fathers and children have been resolved to such an extent that the passions driving the seven Harry Potter novels are reduced to dying embers.  J. K Rowling could, I suppose, write a novel based on the script of The Cursed Child, but I’m taking her at her word that this spectacular production really is the end.   At least until a certain prisoner in Azkaban breaks out…

Who then is  the cursed child?   If I am right, the clues concealed in the text and the logo point to not one, but three characters,  two boys and a girl.  What’s your take?