What's with the nest? - The Snow In The Summer or So-So

22 September 2016
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Cursed Child. What's it like for people who don't know much about the Harry Potter canon? We'll answer that question. We'll also give some sizable spoilers, so if you don't want to know anything about the production, look away now.

Where are we coming from? We've tried to read the books, twice. We've twice given up, because JK Rowling's writing style is gloopy and it feels like we're drowning. But we know the broad outline of the plot, thumbnails of the leading characters, certain traits and details from when we ran a Potter-themed event in spring last year. Basically, what we'd picked up from cultural osmosis.

Cursed Child is a "short" story by Jack Thorne. Like any number of fan fictions, it draws on the characters created by JK Rowling. Unlike any other fan fiction, it has been written with input from Rowling.

The story claims to be short. This is not true. It is, in fact, very long. You might think it's a long way to the end of the universe, but that's naught compared to the length of Cursed Child. Across its various parts, the play runs for over five hours. It could easily lose an hour.

The best bits

Credit where it's due. The effects are superlative. Wands let off a visible charge, bookcases do appear to swallow the actors, writing is revealed to be on the walls, there are hidden doors everywhere. Props appear and disappear under voluminous robes, there's careful lighting and sterling sound design.

They've made a deliberate decision to dress the stage lightly. Scenes in the Ministry of Magic might involve one desk, and perhaps a door, on an otherwise empty stage. The characters might treat the door as being in a wall, we can see through it.

Not that the performance is light on atmosphere: intelligent use of columns and arches in the wings gives the illusion for the forest scenes. Suitcases double as gravestones, we can let this pass as an artistic statement of its own.

Yes, they can act their way out of a paper bag

The acting, also, is high quality. Anthony Boyle and Sam Clemmett are the lead characters, as Scorpius Draco and Albus Potter respectively. On the surface, this is their story, they're the ones trying to secure their places in the history books.

But they wouldn't get audiences without the Famous Trio, here played by Jamie Parker, Noma Dumezweni, and Paul Thornley. Ron is a cypher of a character, literally included as comic relief. Harry is a civil servant. Hermione rules, so no change there. Ginny Potter (Poppy Miller) is present but only as the put-upon wife. Alex Price brings Draco Malfoy to an interesting misunderstood life.

We know little about the intricate relationships of this group, and such knowledge as is required comes through in the play. (The gist: Everyone got along with everyone else, except they hated Draco.)

In dramatic analysis, the hero of the play is the character who changes the most as a result of the plot. For our money, Cursed Child is the story of Delphinia, played by Esther Smith. The hero archetype requires a complex character, and it took great skill to bring out that complexity.

We were also impressed by Annabel Baldwin as Moaning Myrtle: it's only a short role, played with great understanding and verve.

The script is exactly what we'd expect from modern drama: advancing the surface plot through snappy dialogue. There's barely a monologue in the whole play, and never a danger of the cast bursting into song.

They do dance, from time to time, almost. The opening scene is a wonderfully choreographed fantasia on luggage at King's Cross, and many of the later movements have a certain grace to them. Anyone wearing robes is likely to walk briskly and with purpose, and to cover up a prop with a simple swish.

The stage is used well: the central trapdoor is kept concealed until the second act, a smaller trapdoor at the front is used sparingly. The main feature of the stage is a giant turntable, props and characters rotate and spin into view. The main piece of dressing is two large wooden staircases, which did get a bit familiar.

PWP

We do have one problem with this show, and it's a big one: the plot.

Where to begin with the plot's problems? Unimaginative. Time travel is nothing new, and it's pretty much been done to death. Go back into history, change something, see what the consequences are. Then use Plot Phlebotnum to undo your changes. It's the sort of thing Danger Mouse can wrap up in 11 minutes.

Time travel is such a common trope that there are rules on how it's used, and how Plot Phlebotnum works to undo it. When you travel back in time twice, taking action A then action B, you've got to undo action B before undoing action A. (Otherwise when you undo action A, you come back to a universe where B still happens, and you might not have the opportunity to undo B.)

And if you want to break this rule, you've got to establish a reason why this standard doesn't apply. Cursed Child doesn't do either of these things, and introduces many paradoxes in its own timewaving.

Another universe

Twistyverses are also a common trope. Again Danger Mouse is our reference. It teases out plenty of fun in short chunks - and suggests there are even more wonkyverses to explore. (We'll be in the one where Mike's Pie Stall sells edible food.)

It's not a popular idea. The Atlantic wrote sniffily that the multiverse is an imagination killer. Christian site The Mockingbird advanced a different philosophical argument.

Unlike all the others, [the multiverse idea] seems to approach us not as ungainly lumps of seething quanta but as human beings. Everyone has regrets, everyone has done things they wish they hadn't, everyone wonders what might have happened if things had gone another way. The many-worlds interpretation consoles us and wards us off all at the same time. Everything really did go the other way. You really can be happy. But not here; never here.

There's no way we could ever carry out any experiment to test for the multiverse's existence in the world, because it's not in our world. It's an article of faith, and not a very secure one.

The multiverse is a prop, a way to explain away things that can't otherwise be explained. It's supposed to induce a Copernican vertigo, your own tininess in a hall of mirrors where every reflection can strut around asserting its primacy, but in fact it's a strangely comforting doctrine. Go back to the double-slit experiment. What the 'God did it' theory of waveform collapse and the many-worlds interpretation both do is cut out all the uncomfortable messiness of life, the contingency, that spectral 'could have' trembling on the other side of 'is.' If there's a divine hand that chooses, or a cleavage in the universe that delivers both results, then there's some kind of order in the universe.

(More evidence that Rowling presented Potter as the Aslan for his generation? That's off topic.)

Details, details

A couple of little notes bugged us. There's a reference to "the muggle prime minister and his government". Now, the bulk of the play is set at the start of Albus's fourth year, which (according to the programme) must be in September 2020. Will there be "his" government in 2020? C'mon, Tim!

Towards the end of the play, there's a flashback to Hallowe'en 1981. Snow is falling. Not where we're standing, it's not. Godric's Hollow is somewhere in the West Country, and Hallowe'en 1981 in that area was average-to-mild - it had been chilly earlier in the week, but not on 30 or 31 October. Sloppy writing and/or pisspoor research.

In the village, Scorpius and Albus find various magic supplies. Did they not think to look for a time turner while there? The regulations against their use had not yet been passed. And had Delphie's plan succeeded, it's likely that Voldemort would never have used a turkey baster, that she would cease to exist?

Intersectionality

Previously, JK Rowling has been criticised for her stereotyped depictions of ethnic minorities. Does Noma Dumezweni's casting rebut all of the criticism? No; Rowling remains weak in this area. Does it matter to the plot that Hermione is played by a black woman? No. Is it consistent with the established canon? We don't care, but apparently so. Is Noma Dumezweni any good? Very much so, and that's what we'll remember.

We do have one last problem: Cursed Child is very blokeish. *Very* blokeish. It's the tale of Albus and Scorpius, neither of whom are the hero of the story.

Albus's problem seems to be "Wah, dad is so famous and I got put into the green lot." Harry's problem is that he's a cypher, a flat character, included as a contractual obligation. Scorpius's problem is that he's an expositionary plot device for half the play, a character to whom stuff happens.

The women are written badly. Strong women are wasted - Hermione Granger would have grown to a bitter, grumpy, washed-up teacher just because she didn't marry Ron. Astoria Greengrass doesn't appear, but her name was dredged up again and again to provide her husband and son with man pain. The whole sub-plot about Scorpius's father is grotesquely phallocentric, and relentlessly heteronormative. (And surely the magic world has heard of DNA tests by now...)

The Trolley Witch can remember Sirius Black and the Weasleys but not her own name. Rose has a cameo in the opening and closing scenes, and is otherwise wasted. The only reason Cursed Child passes the Bechdel Test is when McGonagall scolds Hermione for keeping contraband in her office.

Women become wives who exist to ask their husband questions. They're not characters, they're plot exposition devices.

And then the complete and utter waste of Delphie. She spends three-quarters of the play leading Albus on, squelching the obvious bromance between Albus and Scorpius. Then she flips from Manic Pixie Dream Girl to My Daughter And Heir. No agency of her own, she's just a pawn of her famous father, just as Albus is a pawn of his famous father.

We look forward to the many fanfics where Delphie and Albus share the experience of being in the shadow of their famous fathers. Heck, that would have made a stronger middle act than all the multiverse time-travelling bollocks.

Can we mention the "plot" of My Immortal, the most goddam-awful fanfic ever? (And by "plot", we use the term as loosely as a snapped elastic band.)

Just to rub it in, Delphie has big hair and ice-white skin. She wants to be a large, black bird. A main character fancies her. She does prophecy. She goes back in time for the love of Voldemort.

That's our Delphie Dark'ness Dementia Augury Diggory Lestrange Voldemort Raven Way.

Cursed Child shares chunks of plot with My Immortal and Danger Mouse, and is less witty than either. We'll just leave it there.

Other Stuff

Outside the stage, in the foyer, there's a merchandise stall. Don't bother queueing, get it all online. Or reject it entirely: the only reason they've constructed new badges for the houses is to flog a new range of tat to the fans.

Indeed, it feels like the only reason why Cursed Child is so long is to flog more tat to the fans. The end of part 1 is a staging post in the story. Sure, it's built up to look like a bustling market town, but this is merely a small village inn.

They could have staged the play in one (long) sitting, removed much of the filler to a not-quite-four hour play. But then they'd only be able to sell one set of tickets rather than two. The tail of money wags the dog.

In summary: superlative effects, excellent acting, great stagecraft, shame about the plot, and we can't help but feel we've been a little ripped off.

In our grand marking scheme of media, this gets a B-minus. Worth seeing, wouldn't pay to see it again.

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