Australian Arts

Wizardly wham-bam

28 May 2022

9:00 AM

28 May 2022

9:00 AM

It’s an extraordinary thing in its way to revisit Harry Potter and the Cursed Child three years after its triumphant day-long opening. Back in 2019 there had been the pleasant surprise that so much of the human drama had been retained and in various ways heightened in Jack Thorne’s collaboration with J.K. Rowling which showed Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione, in the throes of coping with the world of middle-aged parenting even though Dementors continued to suck away the very breath of happiness, Hogwarts was the magical mystery school it had always been and there was all the razzle and dazzle in the world. Snape spat everything out of his mouth like a somehow illuminated Richard III and the Rowling universe was there in all its recollected glory but with an extra touch of maturity and dramatic subtlety. That’s gone, alas, in this new abridgement together with the extraordinary largesse of the opening series of parties organised by that marvellous publicist Peter Bridges where we were ferried by bus the shortish distance to the Exhibition Building in the late afternoon and were regaled with all manner of expensive liquor and food and where you could catch up with members of the entertainment world – Magda Szubanski was reading Middlemarch and was taking some tots out for the enchantment, Fred Schepisi and his artist wife Mary were there and Christie Whelan Browne’s beauty (which matches her talent) was on show. It was a meeting of the clans and it seems now like a lost domain given the intervening pandemic, the lockdowns under Daniel Andrews, the way Melbourne theatre became a ghostly memory. And because Harry Potter and the Cursed Child had been such a sustained exercise in innocent pleasure and Peter Bridges’ succession of parties were like rival works of art, the original six-and-a-half-hour production – watched from sumptuous front-stall seats in the company of a millennial who gleamed and glowed with pleasure as if the best of his childhood was rising before him – the full version can seem like the dreamy cyclorama of a world we have lost.

The sense of loss is in fact an illusion, everything from Hamilton to the Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella is soaring all around us as if the commercial theatre had no tomorrow, almost as if Covid were over and the world was a blank sheet without danger simply because everyone had got the virus from their kids.

All of this may have a cheering side. There’s certainly a lot of heartiness on show in theatre circles but the new abridgement of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is not on par with the epic original. The millennial who was experiencing it (a different one) –from a base of wild enthusiasm for the books and films – was a bit bored. The trouble with this abridgement is that it does handstands to preserve all the wizardly wham-bam effects but at the expense of the human drama which gets short shrift in terms of dialogue, pacing and proper human direction. No one – at least ideally – wants Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a complex piece of populism in its way, reduced to its special effects because their specialness worked so well in the original where the human scale is so skillfully observed. In that respect the original stage show was an intricate side-step which tallied with but also subtilised the elements of the original.

After all, from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on, the supreme vitamin of J.K. Rowling’s books – the magic readability element that rivalled Agatha Christie – was the way they combined broomstick rides of magic and the supreme evil of Voldemort with the traditional boarding school story and the subset of this is the very enriching effect of the adult characters – Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall, Snape, etc. One of Rowling’s contributions to preserving the best of British culture is that the grown-ups were played in the films by the likes of Maggie Smith and Richard Harris (eventually replaced by Michael Gambon as Dumbledore), by Alan Rickman and Imelda Staunton. One upshot is that millennials know these old-timers where they would not be able to place Vanessa Redgrave or Glenda Jackson.

Of course, a further consequence with the films is that the older characters tend to be cut back to get all the Quidditch spectacularism on screen so that in some ways the fullest dramatic realisation of the books was to listen to them read aloud by Stephen Fry or Jim Dale. (Then again, the books themselves become inordinately long and actually reach their peak in The Prisoner of Azkaban which is also the best of the films.)

None of this is meant to deny the delights of the abridged show which is liable to thrill people who have not seen the longer, subtler version of Cursed Child. And the performances are, as ever, fine. Ben Walter is a convincing Albus Potter and Nyx Calder is a pretty perfect foil as Scorpius Malfoy. Garth Reeves has the right amount of improvised gravitas as the grown-up dad Harry and Lucy Goleby is fine as Ginny. Some critics have taken to task the abridgment of what Jessica Vickers gets to do as Delphi Diggory because the cut-back Cursed Child elongates and distorts the very supple and superbly paced drama of the Rowling/Jack Thorne original. Still, we have David Ross Patterson’s Snape and if he’s not the late Alan Rickman he’s certainly something.

All this culminated in the very different drama of Australia changing government a few days later in what is arguably the most dramatic election result since 1972. We have witnessed the decimation of the traditional Liberal party and the exit of some of its most formidable moderates such as Dave Sharma and Tim Wilson not to mention the staggering defeat in Kooyong of the former treasurer Josh Frydenberg who was destined to inherit the leadership of the Coalition if Scott Morrison was defeated. The rise of the ‘teals’ may be every bit as significant as that of the DLP in the 1950s.

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