It’s so exciting for me to have to say: Spoilers! I never talk about recent things!
I’ve always been leery of reviewing plays, especially plays I’ve never seen. But most plays don’t have their scripts published at midnight, either, and most plays don’t have “Harry Potter” in the name. Like Hamilton, which has a cultural thumbprint much greater than a regular stage show, I get the feeling that Cursed Child will similarly affect people who have been living on Potter scraps since 2007. For the faithful and obsessed alike, there’s been no new territory of any import to explore; one gets only so far with page-long short stories on Pottermore or auctioned family trees. If it felt like J.K. Rowling could keep her paws off the material – which I don’t think is realistic to hope for any longer, given the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them films – then it might have been easier to give up on reading and seeing more Potterverse; if it felt like a profitable concept could be allowed to die organically without someone resurrecting the franchise for beaucoup bucks, then it might have been easier to give up on reading and seeing more Potterverse. Knowing Rowling as we do, and living when we do, there’s been a little voice in the back of my head since 2007 which has said, “Even when the movies are finished, there will still be more of this to go around.”
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is not technically a Rowling creation, at least not in the unsullied way that we think about the Potter novels as being Rowling creations; Jack Thorne is listed as the sole playwright, and the story has input from Thorne, Rowling, and director John Tiffany. It shows. Rowling’s humor, one of her calling cards as a writer, is largely missing; what jokes there are between Albus Potter (Sam Clemmett) and Scorpius Malfoy (Anthony Boyle) fall flatter, while Ron, whose humor worked because it was offset by his crankiness, is a lightweight Fred and George surrogate in the play. Yet the world was highly recognizable despite missing some of the elements I had become used to in Potter stories. An early mention of “lacewing flies and boomslang skin” brought Polyjuice potion, inevitably, into the story; a number of the spells we’ve come to know and love are fired off; names like “Nott” and “Rowle” bounce into the plot; and, of course, some of our favorite characters return the way we knew them. The “Nineteen Years Later” epilogue is recreated almost verbatim, for example, as is the scene where Hagrid shows up and rescues Harry from the Dursleys. Few are the major Potter characters who don’t get at least a shoutout, although the show, to its credit, stops itself from functioning as everyone’s epilogue. It has its own story to tell, which is plenty interesting on its own merits, though it leans a little more heavily on the extant universe than is truly brave. For example, Hermione has taken a leaf out of McGonagall’s book for security, such as it is (trust me, that’s funny if you’ve read the text of the play), and a weirdly significant section of the play’s plot relies on the Triwizard Tournament from Goblet of Fire to live.
In terms of Cursed Child’s characters, each of them seem to ring more or less true for me in the play’s primary timeline (yes, primary timeline). Harry (Jamie Parker, whom I have loved since The History Boys) is the head of Magical Law Enforcement now, the boss Auror who Dolores Umbridge said he would never be. He is more or less the same Harry, maybe a little mellowed out, but at heart he is totally recognizable. He is still, deep down, the “HARRY YES” we came to know and yell at last decade; he has uncovered a prototype of a Time Turner on a raid that he decided to conduct himself, while simultaneously he still can’t keep up with all of his paperwork. At one point in the play, he gives McGonagall the business, telling her to watch the Marauder’s Map at all time and to keep his son, Albus, away from Scorpius because of a prediction that Harry interprets badly. McGonagall (and this is admittedly pretty weird, about as close as Thorne gets to a characterizing misstep), with misgivings, agrees to Harry’s wishes. At first, I thought to myself that was more ham-handed than was really warranted, but as I thought about it more, it’s exactly the kind of thing that Harry would have done in Order of the Phoenix. There’s not so much difference from the Harry who bolted to the Department of Mysteries despite the advice of literally everyone else, or the Harry I’ve talked about in Deathly Hallows.
On page 426, Harry is somewhere between Hermione’s skepticism of the existence of the Hallows and Ron’s relative sureness. On page 433, Harry has come to the following conclusions without any new evidence falling his way:
- the Deathly Hallows exist.
- Marvolo Gaunt’s ring, the Horcrux that Dumbledore destroyed, had the Peverell coat of arms (that is, the Deathly Hallows symbol) on it.
- The ring actually contained the Resurrection Stone.
- His Invisibility Cloak was Ignotus Peverell’s Invisibility Cloak, and thus…
- …James Potter, who was the Cloak’s owner (though not the Cloak’s holder) at the time of his death, is descended from Ignotus, and so is Harry.
- Dumbledore left Harry the Resurrection Stone inside a Snitch.
- Voldemort is looking for the Elder Wand.
- Harry is in possession of two of the Hallows, while Voldemort is tearing up heaven and earth for the last one.
- The reason Dumbledore did not mention any of this is because he usually let Harry “find out stuff for” himself.
Harry’s best moments in the play come when he recognizes that his headstrong, gut-first decision making is problematic, and that it would behoove him to take some other people’s advice to heart. We can talk about how that’s done – maybe it’s because it’s on the page and not in Jamie Parker’s voice, but the part where Harry tells Albus he wishes he wasn’t his son is so maudlin even for Magical Degrassi that it just clangs against me. But the sentiment, the feeling of “I did wrong by [insert person] and once [insert other person] talks to me about it, I’ll realize what I’ve done,” is pure Harry. The fact that it’s Ginny (Poppy Miller) who is giving Harry the business when he’s wrong also feels right; that’s not Hermione’s job anymore, and once Ginny wasn’t Ron’s moron sister who found a Horcrux, she turned into a no-nonsense, hard-nosed woman who can see right through Harry’s mistakes and identify them for what they are.
Hermione (Noma Dumezweni) is, interestingly, defined largely by her relationship with Ron, and it’s done in a way that’s different from the ways the books did it. Much of the play takes place in a series of alternate realities, and in those alternate realities the defining quality of what makes Hermione different is that she isn’t with Ron (Paul Thornley). Ron is more or less the same in each one, but Hermione’s personality changes primarily because of how romantically involved she is or is not with Ron. That seems unfair to Hermione, who is Minister of Magic (there’s the tell that I’m an American – the script and the Brits alike call her “Minister for Magic”) and who seems to not have very much to do in that job. It’s interesting that Hermione in the books is defined largely by her ambition, her incredible work ethic, while here there’s not much else she could attain. She’s already a wife, a mother, the most important political figure in the British Wizarding World; can you go up from there? Hermione is as wise and clever as ever in the primary timeline, but the edge is off her. It’s arguable that the most important thing that Cursed Child does to her is define her skin color. The books – and this is lovely close reading from people who figured this out a long, long time before I did – are not particularly talkative about Hermione’s skin color. There’s a line in Prisoner which calls Hermione “very brown” after a holiday in France, one which I think implies a white character, but like, it’s not as if being white is important to who Hermione is, and it’s not as if blowing up canon on this point actually matters. Cursed Child put Noma Dumezweni in the role, and it’s wonderful. Just as The Force Awakens made its three heroes a white girl, a black man, and a Latino man once it had a chance to diversify its cast, we see that Cursed Child had a similarly open mind once it had another go-round from the original source material. By my count, the play has a thirty-five person cast, of whom eight are people of color. Seeing as Britain is about 87% white, that’s more than representative of the country’s population of color; if there’s a complaint to be made here, I think it should probably stem from the fact that Indian or Pakistani actors don’t show up in the show despite their historical connection to Britain, and the fact that about 9% of the British population is of Asian decent. The fact of the matter is, in 2016 there is no reason for anyone to have an all-white cast, or anything close to it. Is the job done? Of course not, but this feels like some kind of forward progress.
When the B&B B&B tackled Harry Potter in a recent episode, I called Prisoner of Azkaban the second-worst novel of the bunch, relying largely on the failings that a Time-Turner creates. It’s not new analysis to argue that Prisoner, which is one of the more charming novels in the series, neatly tying together several strands of adolescence which are addressed more clumsily later on, is undone by its time travel acts. In Prisoner as much as any other Potter novel, I think Harry is forced to reckon with himself becoming an adult, recognizing in very tangible (or perhaps misty) ways that it’s not about never being afraid, but having mechanisms to cope with fear. The novel also introduces us to Remus Lupin, Sirius Black, and the events which led to the death of Harry’s parents, an incident still shrouded in mystery at that point of the series. (Man, 1999 was wild; we had no idea what Fidelius or Patronus charms did, and we thought we’d never fight another war in Iraq.) All of it goes to pieces, really, once Buckbeak is executed and Sirius is apprehended; Dumbledore gives Hermione a hint, the Time-Turner is used, and a great many changes are made to the timeline itself: Sirius escapes with Buckbeak, Harry learns to cast a Patronus, and two books later, J.K. Rowling cleans up the mess that time travel can make by blowing up every Time-Turner in Britain. It seemed we were safe after a troubling misstep.
I like time travel stories. I think most people do. They’re an opportunity to see how things would be different if we changed one or two details, even incredibly small ones; everyone knows firsthand just how different things might be if we had made different choices ten minutes or ten years ago. But time travel stories, because they are so volatile, because no author can account for the physics by which things change when time turns, because no one can see all of the threads that might be altered or judge their weight, are almost inherently doomed. Alternate realities are a touch safer, although it’s hard to love an alternate reality. The new Star Trek movies, despite all of the other nasty thoughts I’ve had about them, were wise to take old characters we already were invested in and put them in a different timeline. I have argued time and again that “The Jet Set” is one of the five best episodes of Mad Men because it gives us an alternate reality for Don Draper, a man who seems to eat those alive (or at least watch them die and steal their dog tags), without ever playing into some sci-fi weirdness. The Age of Apocalypse timeline in X-Men is an example of good time travel, although I would also posit that part of the reason it works is because it covered the entire X-Men line of comics; doing what X-Men did well in a Harry Potter context would require another half-dozen Potter novel series. Yet even alternate realities, more times than not, feel like an exercise for writers hemmed in by the facts of their established universes more than self-sustaining ideas. And how could alternate realities or time travel be self-sustaining? They’re alternate! They’re time travel! They’re built to be gimmicky.
Cursed Child, which relies even more heavily on a Time-Turner (or two, thanks to Malfoy’s secret deus ex machina) than Prisoner does, and with so little of the accompanying joy of learning about Hogwarts or our Trio, should by that logic be a worse text. In a lot of ways it is. Yet the time travel, the component that really torpedoes Prisoner, is handled well. It’s not adroit or deft, but it’s handled well. The model for Cursed Child isn’t actually Prisoner, but It’s a Wonderful Life. Just as George Bailey figures out how different Bedford Falls would be without him, Albus and Scorpius recognize the profound difference that changing one link in the chain can make, and that link, weirdly enough, is Cedric Diggory.
It’s been a while since you started reading this, so we may as well recap the plot a touch just to reset ourselves. Albus Potter, every inch a middle child, befriends Scorpius Malfoy on the train to Hogwarts despite his parentage; not only is he a Malfoy, but there’s a rumor going around that he is in fact Voldemort’s spawn, a rumor that seems to ring true even for normal people (cough HARRY YES cough). Albus is sorted into Slytherin with Scorpius – perhaps because of Scorpius – and things fall apart from there. By his third year, Albus is every bit the little emo pill that Harry was in his fifth, and fighting with his famous father about his hero complex, about how difficult it is to grow up the son of the most heroic man alive (it is just as well that George Washington was impotent, lemme just say), about how he feels totally incapable of living up to his father. The Slytherin business and his friendship with Scorpius just make it worse; there are hints that it’s actually affecting his magical development, as Albus is somewhere between Ron and early Neville in terms of magical prowess. Things come to a head after Albus witnesses a heated conversation between Harry and Amos Diggory, who is still kicking and mourning his perfect son, one of the first victims of the second war on Voldemort. Amos believes that the Ministry still has a Time-Turner, which he wants to use to bring his son back to him; Harry, knowing that there is, in fact, a Time-Turner, and appreciating from experience the danger in fiddling with past events, tells him that no Time-Turners remain. Long story short: Albus and Scorpius sympathize with Amos, with a little help from his nurse and niece, Delphi (Esther Smith), who bears one of those traditionally too-meaningful Potter names. They decide to keep Cedric alive, as a kind gesture to Amos and as a middle finger to Harry. Albus and Scorpius rapidly discover that their plan is fraught with about a zillion complications; alternate timelines pop up, from one where the biggest change is that Hermione is a single Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, to another where Harry is dead, Albus is never born, Severus Snape is the key man in a three-person Order of the Phoenix, and Scorpius is the king of the roost at Hogwarts where students learn some fascist “Voldemort and Valor” jawn. In the end, we realize that Delphi is Voldemort’s daughter by Bellatrix Lestrange, and that she intends to go back in time to warn Voldemort against ever attacking Harry Potter in the first place. She is overcome by Harry and his pals (after they run the “Fake Voldemort” play out of the playbook) and the timeline as we know it and love it is restored, while Harry and Albus come to terms with one another over Cedric’s grave.
The title of the play has more facets to it than the average Harry Potter title – there is only one Chamber of Secrets, after all – and it plays up the mystery. Who is the Cursed Child? The obvious answer at the end of the play is Delphi Lestrange-Riddle (eesh), though for much of the play the title could reasonably apply to Albus Potter – cursed with being constitutionally incapable to live up to his parents’, especially his father’s, reputation – or to Scorpius Malfoy, whose mother Astoria died young and whose father (Alex Price) has never recovered from the blow, or from the rumors that his child is in fact Voldemort’s. The title could very easily be about Harry, a literally cursed child, although if they were going to call a Potter property “Harry Potter and the Harry Potter,” they should have used it for Order of the Phoenix instead.
Who the Cursed Child is is far more interesting than who the Half-Blood Prince is, at least over the course of the play. The Half-Blood Prince felt like a red herring from the start, and to a significant extent it was. The identity of the Cursed Child matters to me, at least, because it recognizes what might be the single most pressing issue for adults to consider: what are we doing to the children? There is a strong sense that somehow, there is a child who has been done wrong by the actions of the adults who laid the scene for him or her to enter. Delphi, who grew up in a Death Eater house, never went to Hogwarts, never met her father (or had much time to know her mother, really, since Albus’ maternal grandmother blasted Bellatrix off the map in one of the ten most satisfying moments in Potter history), spends her life wishing she knew her father. It’s a fascinating distinction, and the story does well here; her primary motivation, unlike Barty Crouch, Jr., is not to bring her father back to life to gift him a chance at power, or to create a world in which Voldemort is the Wizarding Fuhrer, but simply to be with him. It’s a simplistic desire for two reasons. First, Delphi would be responsible for all manner of horrors should she save her father’s life, but second, we know something Delphi doesn’t. We know that Voldemort doesn’t do friends, doesn’t do partners, doesn’t do hangers-on. He only does servants. (It’s a reason I don’t really think Voldemort would have had a kid in the first place; there’s not a lot of room in his life for sex, because that involves some kind of intimacy regardless of how hard-boiled one is.) Delphi would have found her relationship with her father at least as unfulfilling as Albus views his relationship with his father through the first few acts of the play.
The Potter series has always been deeply concerned with parenthood, which is funny, because there are not all that many parents in the series. The main characters are children at boarding school who interact with essentially celibate professors. The protagonist of the series is an orphan, and the antagonist of the series is, too. With apologies to Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Cursed Child is the one major text in the Potterverse which is interested in how parenting looks, not just what the lack of parenting feels like. And in making parenting one of its focuses, it shines a light on the lack as well. Harry is open about how difficult it is to be a father when he has no blueprint from his own childhood. Who would he look to, anyway? Uncle Vernon? Hagrid? Sirius? It turns out that he looked mostly to Dumbledore as his fathering model, a choice at least as bad as Hagrid, and he has it out with Dumbledore’s portrait (and man do I wish they had left Dumbledore’s portrait out of this) in one scene because of that ultimately unsatisfying connection. At least Albus has a father, Harry thinks, and he should be grateful; not everyone gets a father. Meanwhile, Albus thinks just the opposite; my life would be easier to navigate if I didn’t have a father, or if I didn’t have this one. By the end of the play, I think Harry has the same kind of empathy which we’ve traditionally associated with his mother. Just as Lily was capable of seeing the good in people who are otherwise scorned and rejected, Harry recognizes Delphi’s need to know her own father, just as he knows it in himself. Only then does he start to find a way to negotiate with his middle child, and it’s a satisfying (if not exactly meaty) conclusion that does not call for another story.