When you find your ramblings about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child from two years ago…
Note: This review is based on a preview performance of the play I was lucky enough to see in London 2016.
Five hours is the longest you can travel back in time without causing irrevocable damage. Remember that. And then revel in the narrative mastery Harry Potter and the Cursed Child managed to pull off despite messing with more than a decade of meticulously-beloved literary canon. Or maybe it was because of the challenging of this fact that the play works so well? The Cursed Child went back more than five minutes, repeatedly, and it was in those character-driven time travel machinations that The Cursed Child found its soul.
Written by Jack Thorne from a story created by Thorne, J.K. Rowling, and the play’s director John Tiffany, The Cursed Child isn’t just another money-grabbing reboot, reimagining, or remake to add to the ever-growing list. I mean, yes, of course it is, but it isn’t just that. It is also a legitimately interesting, challenging, and rewarding addition to the Harry Potter fable.
The Cursed Child begins where Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows left off: with that divisive epilogue. It is similarly cringe-worthy here, though it does an admirable job in launching a story of fathers and sons, of legacies and free will, of regret and the ever-constant way the human brain fights against the inevitability and finality of death.
Though Harry Potter may be the character on the marquee, it is Albus Potter who really drives the action of the play and, in that respect, who is our protagonist. (Although, this is truly an ensemble play.) Albus is measured against Harry and found wanting for not being a Gryffindor and for not being a good Quidditch player, but for everyone who has read the books, we know that Albus is incredibly like Harry the person vs. Harry the hero. (Even if Harry claims Albus is more like Ginny.)
Albus is incredibly loyal to his friends, he wants to do what is right, and he hates the legacy that has been thrust upon him. Interestingly, in many ways, Harry acts as his antagonist, both externally and internally. As the man against whom he is always being measured and found wanting. The man who will do anything to keep his son safe, but who will not listen to him long enough to understand what that might mean.
Scorpius Malfoy is Albus’ right-hand man and, in the performance I saw, the play’s scene-stealer. (Though, really, this entire cast is incredibly impressive.) Like his best (and only) friend, Scorpius, too, lives in the shadow of his father — both his actual father and the Dark Lord everyone seems to think he might have been spawned from. “Have you met Scorpius?” Albus quips exasperatedly at one point to his father who thinks Scorpius is a bad influence on his son, so ludicrous is it to think that sweet, nerdy, loyal do-gooder Scorpius could be the son of the Dark Lord.
Unlike Albus, however, Scorpius mostly lets the whispers and the assumptions and the expectations slide off his back. Yes, it weighs him down, it makes him sad, but that sadness rarely turns into anger — at least not at the people who don’t matter to him. Scorpius only cares about a few people and, when those people disappoint him, he makes it known. In what is perhaps my favorite part of the two-part performance, Scorpius calls out Albus for his selfishness.
While Albus has been desperately trying to change the past to prove to himself, his father, and that world that he is worthy of being The Great Harry Potter’s son (or, if he cannot prove that, to prove that his father is unworthy of being The Great Harry Potter), Scorpius has been quietly hoping that, maybe, in one of these altered timelines, his mother might be alive. And, yes, he has to tell Albus that this is something he has been hoping for because Albus doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to figure it out himself.
In a rare moment of earnest anger, Scorpius compares Albus’ charmed lot in life to his own. Paired with the reminder-glimpses we have been getting into Harry’s own pre-Hogwarts childhood, which consisted of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of the Dursleys, Scorpius’ reprimand of Albus is doubly cathartic. This moment not only gives Scorpius some added emotional depth and complexity, but it also demonstrates the play’s self-awareness and willingness to critique its own characters.
Like the Harry Potter books, The Cursed Child isn’t trying to create straight-forward hero characters. Yes, the books especially are a version of The Chosen One trope, but they aren’t afraid to make Harry unlikable or wrong. The same is true of this new installment. As Jamie Parker, Harry Potter himself, said in a recent Time Out article:
‘Okay,’ he says, slowly, ‘trying to find an answer to your earlier question, Harry is formerly a very, very famous teenage boy who’s been known alternatively as The Chosen One and The Boy Who Lived, this overtly messianic figure. But he’s never claimed or pretended to be a hero, he never coveted the extraordinary circumstances he was born into, he’s just an ordinary guy who’s tried to do the best he can.
‘Having had this extraordinary rite of passage so early in life, picking up the story 20 years later a lot of his chickens are going to come home to roost – as I think a lot of people find in their forties. When the next generation come along and they’re parents themselves, they have to reckon their internal accounts with the relationships they’ve built. We’re not giving anything away in the plot to say that the relationship between Albus and Harry is a large part of the meal that we’re giving people. But there’s a hell of a lot to it besides that.’
Like Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On before it, The Cursed Child calls into question the entire Chosen One trope by challenging the in-world certainty of magical prophecies. The climactic turn of the play comes when Scorpius informs Delphi that prophecies can be broken.
The Cursed Child doesn’t dismiss what the characters accomplished in the original, but gives them new, character-driven obstacles to overcome and lessons to learn. Which is to say that Harry hasn’t forgotten the lessons he learned over the course of seven books, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have lessons to learn and you better believe that those lessons spring from the same character traits (and character flaws) that Harry exhibited in the books.
Better than that, The Cursed Child delves into why Harry is the way he is more than the books ever did. Perhaps it is the abstract nature of the theater form, but the short, meditative explorations of Harry early childhood through the dreams he is having are heartbreaking and fascinating and give his character, who acts as a quasi-antagonist for the middle part of the play, a human context. It might seem silly to think that this context is necessary. After all, haven’t we spent seven books with this character, yes? Yes. But this is a new story and, even so, in those old stories, Harry was not always the most knowable character. Sure, he was the character we were the closest to perspective-wise, but he was unknowable in the way that we are somewhat unknowable to ourselves.
We are the space that is left when everything else has been observed. We are the thing we are inside of, but therefore cannot see the shape of. This is the first time we have been able to see the shape of Harry in this way, and it is the kind of context that can only come with adulthood. The kind of context I never thought to dream The Cursed Child would allow itself to have.