Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is your classic attempt to burst the utopian bubble of the happily-ever-after, one that will leave many unsatisfied at how Harry’s life has panned out.
First, I have to qualify that penning down my thoughts on the script of a play necessarily does it a disservice. There is much to a theatrical production that the script doesn’t capture – the staging, performances, effects, and lighting – that provide a lot of the texture and nuance that is simply not present in the script – which is, after all, just dialogue and a few notes about the scene.
That said, if Cursed Child is the canonical continuation of Harry Potter’s story, then we are justified in talking about how that story pans out.
Cursed Child is very much a product of its theatrical medium. It takes advantage of its closeness to the audience to accentuate its themes of friendship, familial discord, youthful rebellion against the legacy of one’s parents, the seductiveness of rash action under the guise of good intentions.
In a sense, it is interested in saying things about those themes, under the hood of its steadfastly Potteresque content matter. But in doing so, it tells us that even the heroes of yesterday’s epic can be revealed to be flawed, failing humans when their stories are told through the perspective of a new medium.
This may disappoint some, because the mode of storytelling featured in Cursed Child is different from the books. While the books could – and did – get dark at times, heroism was still the order of the day, good triumphs over evil by dint of love, and the forces of good were by and large noble.
Cursed Child doesn’t quite deconstruct all that – the basic elements are still there – but it does put a dampener in that legacy in the service of telling a tale more focused on the human foibles of its protagonists, rather than their inherent heroism. Even though, at the end, heroism wins the day, what sticks with us is the disjunct between the books – which by now are a nostalgic memory – and the washed-out present.
As adults, the Harry Potter children find themselves making the same mistakes as their imperfect role models before them. Harry Potter has a strained relationship with his son, Albus, partly due to Albus resenting living in his father’s giant shadow, and partly because of Harry’s inability to understand what drives his son, who has departed from the straight and narrow path of the Potter legacy by being sorted into Slytherin. Draco’s own son, Scorpius, has a similar problem – he’s a mild mannered and good-natured sort, antithetical to the established Malfoy brand. The two misfits find friends in each other, but in doing so, they become outsiders, shunned by the very types of people from whom heroes would have been wrought in the original books.
Indeed, the play does manage to interrogate a lot of what we took for granted in the book series – criticisms that a lot of readers have started to see as they grow up. Wizarding society – and Hogwarts in particular – might have been a source of simple escapism for many younger readers of the franchise – but it has its problems. The sorting system, for example, propagates patterns of injustice and factionalism based on essentialist traits. Hogwarts itself is a deathtrap, and Dumbledore negligently remiss in minding the safety of his charges. In the cold light of adulthood, these problems rear themselves in ways that dim the escapist magic of the original series.
Rowling’s subsequent works have shown her to be far more of a cynic than an idealist when it comes to human nature, and retooling Harry Potter for a more adult sensibility will invariably introduce that dynamic to the Potterverse.
If the tenor of the plot is a bit bereft of the magic of the books, its story beats can seem somewhat rehashed. This is because the plot is essentially about time travel – Albus going back in time, unknowingly changing the events of the books, and the audience gets to see how things could have panned out differently. This works for thematic reasons because it lets us revisit past events and explore what-ifs and could-have-beens in an introspective fashion that creates new texture for the original books. It’s also way to explore alternate selves – which really shows up how circumstances shape personality.
But in terms of premise, this seventh entry can seem unnecessarily fiddly with the existing canon, trivialising it somewhat due to the fact that life and death can be so easily altered with just a click of the time-turner. It’s also a bit regressive, insofar that the plot isn’t forward looking, but reflective of the conflicts of the past – a bit of a coda to the series rather than a new adventure in its own right, featuring a new generation. And in frames the central conflict in terms of the legacy of Voldemort, a conceit that might seem unoriginal insofar as we’re still dealing with the fallout caused by that particular dark lord.
So, while Cursed Child is, I think, a good lens by which to interrogate the Potterverse, it doesn’t quite advance the story in a way that sparks the same sense of wonder and imagination as the books. But I suspect that’s not its intention – it is a coda, a bookend, and is a thematic piece rather than one that, on the outset, develops the franchise or sets it up for continuation.
I give this: 3.5 out of 5 Dumbledore portraits