Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Child of the Theater

I may be behind the times compared to many of you, but I recently finished reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

On the off chance there are a few of you even further behind the times than me, I'll briefly note what this recently published book is and is not. It is an official continuation of the Harry Potter story line, picking up 20 years after The Deathly Hallows. It is not an actual novel, but is instead the rehearsal script of the new two-part play now on an open-ended run in the West End. It is not written by J.K. Rowling; the script is by Jack Thorne (though the story is credited to Thorne, Rowling, and director John Tiffany).

In as minimally spoilery a way as possible, the story is as follows. (But skip this paragraph if you're at all concerned about learning something you'd rather not.) Picking up exactly where epilogue of The Deathly Hallows leaves off, the play focuses on the son of Harry and Ginny, Albus Severus Potter. Resentful and rebellious, Albus has a strained relationship with his famous father. The more Albus learns of his father's past, the lower his opinion sinks. And soon it leads the boy to rash action to right a perceived injustice, action that will threaten the wizarding world as nothing since the defeat of Voldemort.

There are some interesting aspects to this story that make it a worthwhile extension of the Harry Potter universe. While the story of Albus and his closest friend could be seen as "Potter: The Next Generation," a redux of the saga we already know, that's not the only element in play here. The Harry Potter stories have always focused on the young characters, with adults moved to some extent to the margins. Here, Harry is an adult (along with other returning characters), and has as many scenes to play as his son. Thus, this story gets into new (or barely touched) material: the challenges of parenting, dealing with survivor's guilt over the long haul, changing relationships with childhood friends (and enemies), and more.

The catch is, this is a stage script, so we don't get to be inside any character's head. We don't have an actor's performance to shade the dialogue either. In short, if the themes above aren't expressly explored in the text, then the reader has to do all the heavy lifting. And frankly, the script distracts the reader in other ways, making it hard to focus on such things. In short, you spend less time combing for subtext than you do wondering how what is described in the text would actually work.

I can't imagine, 20 to 30 years from now, your local rep company or your kid's high school tackling a production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. There are too many wild stage directions that casually describe wizards flinging bolts of magic at each other, the stage transforming wildly in an instant, set components being flung about, cast members being levitated or transformed, and so much more. Every other scene includes a moment where you wonder how it would be achieved on anything less than the exorbitant budgets of the West End or Broadway. It reads more like a magic show with a plot than a stage play.

Actually; scratch that. What it reads like is a movie script. Each act of the play approaches 20 distinct scenes, and most of these rarely run more than two or three pages. It has the swift pacing and sweeping array of locations that feel tailor-made for the screen, and very much at odds with the unities of time, place, and action that typically govern a theatrical production.

None of this is to say that I thought the story itself was bad. I just didn't think an unadorned script was the proper format for it. Stage may not be either, but I'd reserve judgment on that for the possible day I might actually get to see this performed. As it stands, though, I'd grade this experience -- reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child -- a B-.

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