The sorcery behind “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” — the eighth story in the J.K. Rowling series, this one written as a stage play — is of vintage pedigree.
The epic tale of two boys making their way across the terrifying bridge between youth and maturity delivers the old-fashioned delights of traditional fable in the rapturously inventive terms of timeless theater.
The production, already a blockbuster since opening here at the Palace Theatre in July, is divided into two parts. I joined the international tourist hordes making the West End pilgrimage on a day when it was possible to experience both parts back to back, a full immersion in the world of Rowling’s inexhaustible imagination.
The novels, of course, have been successfully adapted to the screen, but one of the fears I had about this theatrical extension of the Potter franchise is that it was going to attempt to reproduce on stage the movie magic. No matter how limitless the production budget, such an approach would have only thrown into relief the theater’s technological inferiority.
How wise then of Rowling to join forces with a director (John Tiffany) and a choreographer (Steven Hoggett) who have patented an approach to theatrical storytelling that prioritizes movement in a scenic tapestry that respects words but isn’t bullied by them. As demonstrated in Tiffany and Hoggett’s preternaturally fluid staging of the Tony-winning musical “Once” and their mesmerizing handling of Gregory Burke’s “Black Watch,” bodies in motion have a poetry all their own.
The story of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” credited to Rowling, Tiffany and Jack Thorne (who is the author of the dramatic script), picks up the Harry Potter tale 19 years after the last book. The protagonist isn’t Harry, now a 37-year-old married man with three children and a high-level position at the Ministry of Magic, but Harry’s middle child, Albus (Sam Clemmett), who as the play begins is heading off to Hogwarts, the prestigious academy for magic, and feeling intimated by the long shadow cast by his most famous wizard father.
Albus befriends Scorpius (Anthony Boyle), another socially anxious new student carrying parental baggage. Scorpius is the son of Harry’s longstanding enemy, Draco Malfoy (James Howard filling in for Alex Price), though the rumor is that he’s really the son of the evil and presumed dead Lord Voldemort. Rose (Cherrelle Skeete), daughter of Hermione Granger (Noma Dumezweni) and Ron Weasley (Paul Thornley), wants nothing to do with Scorpius, but Albus is impressed with Scorpius’ bookish mind, appreciates the candy he’s always happy to share and feels solidarity with a fellow outsider.
For nearly five hours of stage time, Albus and Scorpius embark on one perilous adventure after the next. Thorne’s script depends on secrecy and surprise, so I’m not at liberty to disclose the twists and turns of a plot that is admittedly knotty to a novelistic fault. But I can reveal that much of the action depends on a Time-Turner, an outlawed magical device that allows the two young men to travel back to the past for short intervals.
“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” contemplates an age-old question: If you could go back in time, what would you change? Albus is compelled to erase a blot in his father’s legacy, but in doing so he reorders so much else that he is forced to risk his life and Scorpius’ to undo the damage caused by their tampering.
Being a relative neophyte in the “Harry Potter” world who wouldn’t know “Goblet of Fire” from “Order of the Phoenix,” I no doubt missed many of the subtleties that young scholars of the Rowling series found infinitely meaningful. After rereading the script, I’m still not entirely sure what exactly occurs each time Albus and Scorpius venture back to Harry Potter’s school days. Nor could I provide a precise inventory of the fallout of the boys’ historical meddling.
But the emotional clarity of the tale saves the day. Rowling and company lucidly lay out the inner compulsions driving the story — Albus’ need to redeem himself in his father’s eyes by outshining him; Scorpius’ wish for his natural goodness to earn him what the rumors of his parentage have deprived him of for too long, a genuine friend.
In keeping with the psychological basis of classic fables, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” reveals that the trials that form our characters are survivable, even if the grief they inevitably bring is not something that can be eradicated with a stroke of the wand.
The philosophical dimension of the work is as rich as its emotional substance. Tolstoy once contended that the most profound truths in literature require the simplicity of folk tales. Rowling has arguably wielded this power more successfully than any other contemporary author, and this new chapter in the “Harry Potter” cycle asks us to meditate on the relationship between fate and free will, the nature of evil and the difficulty of recognizing it by outward appearance and the way in which our attempts at outrunning fearful prophecy can often hasten its fulfillment.
At the heart of the work is the relationship between fathers and sons. What passes between them is shown to have enormous influence on whether society chooses justice or power as its organizing ideal. I came to London for Shakespeare and, much to my surprise, found quite a bit of his political insight in “Harry Potter.”
Clemmett’s Albus, Parker’s Harry and Boyle’s Scorpius never let us lose sight of the personal stakes of these public matters. The sensitivity of these performances is all the more remarkable considering the level of occult tumult around them.
Women naturally play an equally important part in the “Harry Potter” world. Hermione, now the Minister of Magic who everyone looks to for governing wisdom, is played with tremendous intelligence and grace by Dumezweni, whose majestic voice will forever be for me the sound of the adult character. Ginny Potter (Poppy Miller), Albus’ mother, plays a guiding role here, always gently nudging the men in her life to confront the wounds they would rather deny. Much as I would like to tell you about Esther Smith’s Delphi Diggory, the most I can safely say is that the bond between fathers and daughters turns out to be as consequential as any other in this story.
The production is undeniably long and there were moments when I wondered if its tremendous scale wasn’t more of a marketing strategy intent on manufacturing a theatrical event than a narrative necessity. But the work moves with an impressive briskness on the spare yet shape-shifting set by Christine Jones appropriately adorned with the kinds of clock faces ubiquitous in train stations like King’s Cross, where the play begins and frequently returns.
So many of the show’s special effects are conjured by simple wardrobe tricks (aided by costume designer Katrina Lindsay) and movement choreography, proving that theatrical legerdemain doesn’t require fancy hydraulics. Children and adults will no doubt find terrifying the soul-sucking Dementors that swoop in for the kill at the spectacular end of the first part, but quiet courage is the perennial scene-stealer.
“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” filled me with the confidence that the challenges of our own age can be met and that goodness can band together to overcome evil. It’s no surprise, then, at this precarious juncture of history that people from the world over are making the journey to witness this lesson together in the theater. The luminous power of Rowling’s storytelling soothes the jangled soul while urgently reminding us that the future ultimately rests in our own hands.
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