Show and tell: How Harry made it onto the stage

Anna Hollingsworth 8 June 2016

Harry Potter continues its world domination, making its way into London’s West End this week.

The long-awaited eighth instalment of the Harry Potter story, The Cursed Child, made its world debut this week, this time not in its usual book or film form but as a two-part play at London’s Palace Theatre. For anyone who lives under a rock, or who has actually been focusing on their exams for the last month, or who doesn’t find themselves bombarded daily on social media by members of the Harry Potter fandom, let me fill you in. The new play, co-written by J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne (a Cambridge graduate), and John Tiffany, treats Harry’s life 19 years after he leaves Hogwarts, now an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, married to Ginny Weasley with a son named Albus Severus. Of course he is still close as ever with Ron and Hermione (who are now married to each other) whose family also feature in the play, as do the Malfoys. However, in true leak-lockdown, Beyoncé style, we know absolutely nothing else, making the arrival of the play an extremely tantalising event (until hardcore fans at the first few shows leak the entire plot and probably a complete transcription of the script online).

After seven international best-selling novels, eight even better selling film adaptations, studio tours in London and LA, theme parks, spin-off books expanding on the coveted Wizarding World (one of which has been adapted into a film starring Eddie Redmayne), and Pottermore, Rowling’s internet community, it seems that the theatre is the only place the Harry Potter franchise hasn’t yet touched (and dominated).

So, is this move to the world of theatre one step too far, or is it the perfect addition to a series of cultural feats that seem to please fans more and more each time? As is evident from the astounding aesthetics and atmosphere of the final Harry Potter films in particular, cinematic projects can get swept up in the potential of special effects, the hype around movie stars, the daunting magnitude of budgets, and the efforts that go into worldwide publicity. In contrast, a theatrical production only has to fill one auditorium each day, allowing the magic and the storytelling to maintain an exciting feeling of privacy, exclusive for those in the theatre. In a recent publicity push, Noma Dumezweni, the actress playing Hermione, said that the biggest difference with this project is that theatre is so much more communal than reading a book, which is almost always solitary, or watching a film, where there is a firm barrier between you and the actors. Theatre is, at its heart, a shared experience and if there is anything the Harry Potter experience should be, it is something to share.

However, the most intense fans are very evidently finding it hard to let go of the films – which is odd because they are adaptations themselves. We can see this in the ridiculous ongoing furore concerning the choice of a black actress to play Hermione, which is apparently bothering people because she doesn’t look just like Emma Watson when she interpreted the role. This die-hard obsession with any further additions to the Harry Potter world aligning with the expectations apparently set in the films demonstrates the power of film that I don’t think we will see in the theatre show. A trip to the theatre is a momentous, fleeting occasion for most people who will probably never see the show again. This will hopefully protect the latest instalment in the series from the craze that turned the films into commodities, somehow possessed by the most intense fans. When you see a film, you are one of potentially millions having that experience at that time, but with a play, there is more ownership of the experience which can’t be tainted by how the story should be according to online mobs of Potterheads. Instead, it is a unique, personal experience that allows everyone a way into J. K. Rowling’s world on their own terms.

It also says something that Rowling rejected all previous offers to turn Harry Potter into a star of the stage (and she had plenty of offers, as I’m sure you can imagine) until Colin Callender and Sonia Friedman approached her with the concept of The Cursed Child. A major reason is that it doesn’t attempt to tamper with the events preserved in the books, instead dealing with the beloved characters in later life, making sure to honour the world Rowling created.

Only the reception that begins to emerge this week will tell but, by the looks of it, Harry’s transition to the stage is in the best of hands and eventually we will all be able to share in the excitement of the latest addition to the story we all know and love.