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Thoughts on Harry Potter & the Cursed Child

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This weekend, I finally saw Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

It was more or less what I expected—a terrific show with some high points and some flaws, but overall, a highly enjoyable afternoon.

Lots has been said about play’s merits or lack thereof as a companion to the Harry Potter novels. If you had a visceral reaction to the epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, you’re unlikely to care much for Cursed Child. If you’re in the hate-it camp on the epilogue, I think you have to take Cursed Child on its own terms as a piece of theater rather than as a sequel if you want to enjoy it. The epilogue didn’t especially bother me, so I had no trouble engaging with the play.

And, as a piece of theater, it largely works.

Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.

The Production

Everyone raves about the fantastic “magic” employed, and it was indeed amazing in both the literal and figurative senses. I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, because much of the fun is in the surprise, but suffice it to say the creative team deployed a clever and imaginative combination of technical tricks and traditional (more or less) stagecraft. There were quite a few effects I couldn’t figure out despite having spent a fair amount of my youth in the theatah as both an actor and a stagehand. There were several moments of real astonishment and wonder that made me feel like a kid at her first live performance again.

The other elements of the production were (thankfully) restrained. The costumes and scenery were simple, with a few set pieces moved around as needed by cast members. The set was enclosed by the enormous arches of King’s Cross and overlooked by a giant clockface, which was a nice touch and gave the proceedings a slightly steampunky feel that I thought worked well to place the goings-on in a recognizable but slightly alien world.

The Performances

The performances were solid and polished in the way one expects from a major professional production, but with one or two exceptions, they didn’t particularly stand out. It’s possible that the complexities of the production–at several junctures, if an actor had been in the wrong spot at the wrong time, they might have been badly injured–made them less likely to take chances.

In the opening scenes, I found many of the actors frenetic and overbroad, although most of them seemed to relax into the performance and became agreeably subtler and more nuanced in their roles as the afternoon progressed.

(You will be unsurprised to hear that I especially enjoyed Snape and McGonagall, who were both dry and acerbic as one could want.)

The Play

The plot is farfetched and silly as befits a story about a magical world, but the play’s primary concerns are very familiar to us Muggles: the nature of friendship and of fraught parent-child relationships. Cursed Child doesn’t mine any particularly new or deep veins on that score. The relationship between Albus Severus and Scorpius is predictably sweet, and the conflict between Albus Severus and Harry is a bit tired, though no less affecting for it. The playwrights understand how to pull all the requisite emotional strings, and there are even a few “oh!” moments that feel genuine.

The female characters are largely without depth, which was a disappointment in the case of Hermione and Ginny, whose emotional and intellectual lives are barely hinted at despite their importance to the plot. Ron is played entirely for laughs, which was not unexpected, and well done by the actor, but disappointing, nevertheless. It would have been nice to see a hint or two of how his and Harry’s relationship evolved over the years, given the play’s focus on the subject of friendship.

The strongest element is the exploration of the effects their traumatic youth had on both Harry and Draco. As the sons of … ahem … difficult fathers/father-figures, each has a lot of baggage to unpack (and it was nice to see that Draco seems to have done a better job of it than has Harry.) The pair are renegotiating their own fraught relationship and reconciling themselves to their separate difficult pasts even as each is grappling with their failings as fathers. 

There seem to me to be a few minor plot holes in the Potter canon introduced by the play, but again, these are easy to ignore if one doesn’t try to tie Cursed Child too tightly to the novels.

The Queerbaiting Issue

Going in, I had steeled myself to—and warned my queer Squiblet about—the play’s alleged queerbaiting. I’d read the script and remembered the annoying attempt to shoehorn an unnecessary and jarring potential romantic relationship between Scorpius and Rose into the end of the play.

But…

THEY TOTALLY CHANGED THE ENDING.

The touring production was revised to trim the play’s running length so it could be performed in a single evening rather than spread over two. They cut some dialogue, some stage business, and several unimportant scenes–all good changes, I think.

I don’t know if the ending change was a part of the revision or if it was a liberty taken by this particular production (in San Francisco), but the reference to Scorpius wanting to date Rose Granger-Weasley was removed. Instead, Scorpius simply asks for Rose’s friendship.

The actors were unambiguous in portraying the boys’ attraction to one another (there’s an aborted almost-kiss—the audience’s disappointment at the near miss was audible), and the final scene between Albus and Harry included some new dialogue in which Albus tells Harry how important Scorpius is to him, adding timidly (and meaningfully) that Scorpius might become “even more important” to him in the future. It’s a coming-out scene, and it’s a welcome surprise, even if it remains maddeningly veiled, presumably to “protect” the sensibilities of the young children in the audience, despite the play’s inclusion of plenty of cis-het kissing, including between (a disguised-as-Ron) Albus and his Aunt Hermione and the killing of a student. Onstage murder: not a problem; onstage gayness: apparently still a problem.

So, one step forward, one step back.