Harry Potter is on the stage. I know, many of us would instinctively opt to serve the penal alternative. But look at the queues of hopefuls around the Palace Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue and the initiates wearing their button badges promising not to give the ending away and soften your hearts. Potter studies have become as much a part of the British childhood as Swallows and Amazons or Enid Blyton.
In Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the eighth instalment of the amiable chap’s hazardous journey through the world of Muggles, wizards and shape-shifting teachers, the scriptwriting team of J.K. Rowling and Jack Thorne introduce us to the main characters in adulthood. Mindful that the audience for a play in two parts and lasting five hours requires the stoicism of a Wagnerite, Cursed Child makes the themes of lost childhood, parental angst and fear of death and loss more central to the story than the page-turning novels. Much stage magic is sprinkled in the tale by John Tiffany, a Scottish director to watch, who directed another scary West End hit, Let the Right One In, as well as the National Theatre of Scotland’s riveting Iraq war saga Black Watch.
Harry, Hermione and Ron have evolved, as children do, into shape-shifted versions of their pre-pubescent selves. So Harry (Jamie Parker) is an exhausted dad with a day job at the Ministry of Magic: a bit like being stuck in the Department of Communities in terms of the wizarding greasy pole. There are neat touches for the Muggle parents to savour — Harry’s son Albus (Sam Clemmett) is unhappy and uneasy at Hogwarts, burdened by the family name. So is his quip-rich best mate Scorpius Malfoy (Anthony Boyle plays the dead-eyed, troubled adolescent, resorting to sarcasm to perfection). It is recognition that living up to parents, outstandingly good or evil, is a thorough pain.
Thankfully there is rich comedy to leaven post-Freudian insight. Hermione (Noma Dumezweni) has the unerring bossy diction of a grown-up public schoolgirl and has become Harry’s boss. No surprise there. Workplace feminism is compulsory now in the interpretation of children’s stories and J.K. could only have surprised us if Hermione had decided to be a stay-home mum. Gawky Ron (Paul Thornley) is one of those perpetual jokers, hiding his disappointments under a cloak of cheeriness — a slightly underdeveloped part overall here.
It’s all very Greek, in an am-I-doing-alright English way. Sons and fathers loop around each other’s ambitions and anxieties, unable to forge connections or break habits. Journeys and clocks reflect metaphysical odysseys. The theatrical challenge is making this entirety look enchanted, for a young audience accustomed to computer-generated film imagery. Old-fashioned prestidigitation comes to the fore, with an accomplished illusionist producing smoke from human ears and scarily realistic mechanical owls flapping across the stage. The magic is undercut with a wink to the parents paying for tickets. Those mundane chores we Muggle mums and dads nag on about are resolved by room-tidying spells and blitz-quick coups de theatre change kids in Gap casuals to blazered Hogwartians.
Enough in-jokes abound to keep advanced Potterites chuckling. “I’m quivering with geekiness,” remarks the young Malfoy after a scene bristling with echoes of past storylines. “Bit late for an owl,” sighs someone as the creature turns up halfway through a scene. Four-point spells and lumos maxima wand references stitch in plotlines from the Rowling oeuvre, but it’s not too much of a stretch for the newcomer to catch up. The mystery is a simple one — who is the eponymous cursed child and why? It’s a neat ending: not so foreseeable as to be pat, but coherent, if you value catharsis. I could let you in on it. But thousands of furious sprogs and a mechanical owl would tear me apart, so why take the chance?
A time-tunnel back to the younger works of a master is David Hare’s new venture in staging two early Chekhov works, Ivanov and Platonov, alongside The Seagull.
Written circa 1880 when Chekhov was just 20, but not staged in his lifetime, the excessive length of Platonov, and its long soliloquies (even by Russian standards), have often deterred directors since. Hare is made of sterner stuff. Together with Jonathan Kent, he has tweaked an earlier reworking they staged over a decade ago to produce a spirited adaptation. Many of the later tropes of Chekhov’s works are here in greener, angrier form — and often more cuttingly, The world Mikhail Platonov, a depressive schoolteacher, inhabits is one of unhappy venal souls trapped in the sticks. So far, so Chekhovian — but even by the standards of the Russian inspection, Platonov (James McArdle) is appalled by his own self-loathing, yet unable to break free. The main burden of his life — apart from the grim stupidity of the Russian provinces and being mired in debt — is that he is fatally attractive to women, from bovine Sasha, his wife (Jade Williams), to Maria (Sarah Twomey), a near-hysterical chemistry student, Anna (Nina Sosanya), a savvy local widow, and poor desperate Sofya (Olivia Vinall), who finally reckons with the self-indulgent loafer. Kent’s assured direction gives us the scorching heat of a dead Russian summer and the sickly excitement of a runaway train.
Together with another early work, Ivanov (starring Geoffrey Streatfeild), and The Seagull (with Anna Chancellor), Platonov is at the National Theatre until mid-October, and you can see all the plays in one gluttonous Chekhov-fest, which I rather fancy. If you’re further afield, try the Russophile Australian director Andrew Upton’s production of the play as The Present — it opens on Broadway later this year, starring Cate Blanchett as cynical Anna. Not bad for a play left to languish among the juvenilia, long before Chekhovian became an adjective.