The Potter series has always stretched the imagination, but a narrative mind is charmed to work overtime in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the new stage play from J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany, billed as the eighth Potter story, 19 years later. Released in book form for both posterity and audiences who lack proximity to the current sold-out West End production, Scholastic’s publication of the Cursed Child rehearsal script manages to throw a wild new wrench into the Potter series, unlocking a rarely tapped portal of the reader’s imagination in a way no Potter book has before.
Much of that belongs to the medium of the story: A play which whizzes through locations and tableaus over four disorienting acts. It’s a beast to behold, but Thorne (from a story he conceived with Rowling and Tiffany) writes without limits. The playwright never dares to let the bounds of a proscenium performance limit the magic (or the set pieces) conjured up in the just-enough stage descriptions he includes, and the result is a script that demands to be seen. For perhaps the first time ever, the ceaseless wonders of Rowling’s wizarding world now come accompanied with an indescribable “How?” that cascades over the entire narrative. It’s theatre, plain and simple, and this interrogative purview of Harry’s existence is not a distraction but a gleeful new challenge tasked to readers and their imaginations. (Cynically, it’s also the ultimate marketing tool in getting thee to a box office.)
Heads inflate, bookcases eat, duels detonate in grand fashion, and centaurs and Dementors abound — all the markings of non-restraint on Thorne, Rowling, and Tiffany’s part, and thankfully so. Cursed Child teems with the clever, cerebral thrills we’ve come to demand in a Potter tale, especially one following in the line of succession behind the ur-mature Deathly Hallows. And all this, regardless of the story’s meta medium. Stage directions have been chosen with laser focus, and although the onus to perform the dialogue falls heavy on the reader, the force to think in this classic form does in fact wash away fairly quickly.
On a purely narrative level, this new story introduces captivating arcs and bold theories that immediately place this sequel squarely in Rowling’s world of simmering, slow-burn machinations. Even before the introduction of a byzantine layer of time travel (which admittedly dominates more of this story than is ideal), it’s clear the stakes here have not done much shrinking 19 years after our last encounter with the Potters. If Deathly Hallows offered the series’ most exciting and discombobulating array of back-to-back chapter action, Cursed Child does the same feat with twists and deductions between scenes. Some stick, and others exist perhaps more for shock, but once the (occasionally maddening) time-turning plotline sets in, the story kicks itself free of any assumed direction. By act three, all hell has broken loose, and it’s manic Potter madness. Voldemort may be gone, but all isn’t well — in the most delightful way in which that declaration can be true.
Thrills aside, the emotional core here is a deeply human one, which Rowling should consider a huge achievement decades in the making. As Harry struggles to find his footing as a parent, his youngest son Albus struggles even more to extract his own identity from the shadow of his father. One early, pivotal argument between the two is cutting on its own… and decades of familiarity with our wizened hero only twist the knife deeper.
Such is the case with the other core players. Hermione, now the Minister for Magic, is professionally uneasy but masterfully at home in her new role. Ron, her husband, is more carefree than ever in his freedom from Death Eaters and academia. To Thorne’s credit, his approach to seeing these characters function in the adult world miraculously avoids cynicism and what could have been a jarring leap of faith; they’re grounded here in the gems of familiar personality they get to display (like Hermione checking Harry’s paperwork at the Ministry of Magic). It’s only Draco whose evolution appears the least impactful and believable, owed to an off-stage tragedy that is a key yet unseen impetus for his behavior.
The introduction of primary protagonists Albus and Scorpius is, largely, perfect. Both characters immediately spring from the page and stake their claim as the wizarding world’s greatest new (yes, new) creations. Albus is rebellious, inquisitive, and foolhardy, but lovable despite his Order of the Phoenix levels of angst; Scorpius Malfoy is dryly funny and winningly sanguine, despite having every reason not to be. Rose, the daughter of Hermione and Ron, is underused but finely crafted, and a handful of other new characters are smartly conceived.
Cursed Child bears its flaws openly, but the lightest offenses are excused; forgive it its exposition, and its frequent returns to such language when the plot demands explanation as shock (which is often). Thorne offers some fine tributes to Rowling’s biting humor, but also strays on occasion; most noticeably, he errs in his homages to fallen characters. With such limited stage direction guiding the dialogue, the premise of figuring out emotion falls on the reader more than previous Potter books, but still, some exchanges read as sterile and unnatural. Of no fault to the playwright, that straight-play trope of awarding a meaty monologue to every character doesn’t quite lend itself to every arc in this tale; similarly, a handful of act-four scenes are detrimentally heavy-handed.
As is the nature of this modern age of revivals and reboots, Cursed Child reads — maybe even exists — as a field guide of cameos and surprises. Each one bears delights and induces smiles, but the play’s story device and its ability to summon up familiar faces feels like the likely reason Rowling and company felt the piece could and should in fact work now, here, in 2016. On that note, Cursed Child is also the series’ least standalone entry. It’s almost akin to Rowling’s complement works (Quidditch Through the Ages, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, etc.), serving more as an experiment in hypothetical world development than in definitive measure. The punch of its revelations about the happenings at Hogwarts would no doubt have hit harder had Rowling not continued the story to such lengths on Pottermore or through her social media unveilings of character details.
Admittedly, it’s tempting to write off the work as Rowling-approved fan-fiction, rather than her own defining mythos. Certainly with time, fans will accept the story as canon, but some of the Cursed Child finality feels presently dubious — not insomuch as where characters have ended up, but in why their fates have almost been perfunctorily defined. It’s almost the Potter series’ response to the nostalgia-mania that’s defined this generation of regeneration — a condition Potter surprisingly subscribed to just nine years after its purported end. On one hand, the reprise helps uncover important new layers that only serve the greater, grander story; but on the other, certain moments in the series have been untied and hastily re-packaged here. (Coyly: Some portraits are best left silent.)
One wonders what Rowling would have done had Cursed Child manifested itself in her home medium, with her inimitable mode of description guiding readers rather than leaving them to fill in the acting blanks in their vision of how this piece operates on a stage (which, to be sure, is an adventure that Rowling, Thorne, Tiffany, and rights-holders Warner Bros. should be commended for embarking upon). But then, we have essentially already read these scenes in Rowling’s prose, and Cursed Child is all about ingenious experiments in the unseen. Here, the reader dares to enact a stretch of logic, imagination, and ethos, borne from Harry’s arrival in both the real world and the “real world.” This is Harry Potter like you’ve never experienced it before. Welcome to the theatre, where participants are asked to fall deeply into the hypnosis of a narrative while also being made wholly aware that they’re watching from the outside. It’s a dastardly strange, magical beast, but it’s one Rowling’s readers have been known — trained, even — to conquer. A