To re-enter the magical world, to step through the portal into the platform, this is the journey we embark upon again. We tread cautiously, seeing only skeletons of script and scene. We come across familiar names and places, but all is it not as it seems. Voices are slightly altered by characters’ ages and playwrights’ styles, settings are unsettled and plots are destabilized. Wands at the ready, what are we to expect of this new experience?
Playwright Jack Thorne’s sparse prose style, in dialogue and stage directions, tends toward abstraction rather than realism — perhaps the subjectivity of modernist memory plays such as Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Juxtaposed, the playwrights’ new lines draw a stark contrast to the raw emotional intensity of Rowling’s original dialogue:
HARRY: Voldemort is going to kill my mum and dad — and there’s nothing I can do to stop him.
DRACO: That’s not true.
SCORPIUS: Dad, now is not the time…
ALBUS: There is something you could do — to stop him. But you won’t.
DRACO: That’s heroic.
Later in the scene, we encounter Rowling’s original lines lifted from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone:
LILY: (from off): Not Harry, not Harry, please not Harry…
VOLDEMORT (from off): Stand aside, you silly girl … Stand aside, now…
LILY (from off): Not Harry, please no, take me, kill me instead…
VOLDEMORT (from off): This is my last warning —
LILY (from off): Not Harry! Please … Have mercy … have mercy … Not my son! Please — I’ll do anything.
In this instance, the original lines emphasizing through repetition Lily’s desperate cries continue to ring in our hearts and minds after many years; the new lines seem stunted, awkwardly attached to the original, almost as addendums. The gripping lyricism of the former jars strangely with the distant observation of the latter. Especially in the action scenes, which run rampant across the acts, the characters’ individual voices and infamous idiosyncrasies in tone and style are difficult to distinguish among the truncated statements.
As elsewhere in the play, the adult characters’ conversations are disappointingly dry; the younger characters’ descriptions are deliberate, yet underdeveloped. Often in the pivotal moments, the fragmented phrases fall flat, feigning unfathomable fantasies. It is moments like these that take us out of the narrative even as others let us suspend our disbelief, hurling us into its magical spells.
In its substance, the play fuses medieval mythology and futuristic fantasy, as the hero’s quest lights the spark for traveling through time. As we begin to learn through journeying alongside our young protagonists, changing the past affects the future with catastrophic consequences; altering fate intertwines with freedom. Yet the fundamental fallacy of the work exists in the following. For a narrative so substantively steeped in the conflicts and collisions of space and time, the play ironically lacks the densely textured physical and psychological portrait that Rowling constructs in the novels, the spatial-temporal complexity that makes the novels feel as though countless characters and stories unfold simultaneously across chronological and geographical boundaries.
The Wizarding World in novelistic form is one that is teeming with life, an almost infinite populace brimming with wizened witches and wizards, crafted creations and caricatures almost Dickensian in British satire and sardonic wit. Perhaps what the play misses most is the sense of realism as broadly construed in its Victorian form, a Bildungsroman that takes the protagonist upon a journey with a progression and narrative arc that is coherent in substance and style.
The form of a play, of course, offers different demands upon the reader and writer, upon the actor and audience. Yet the alternatively quickening and slowing pace of the plot would not find its form in Shakespeare, either, if one travels back even further in Rowling’s long line of literary predecessors. In contrast with Cursed Child, Hamlet — likewise a universal intervention into the father-son relationship — does not necessitate the reader to see its visual effects and hear its sounds in order to captivate one to experience its transformation from page to life. This new play invites neither the psychological profundity nor the musing monologues once crafted by the Bard; instead, it evokes an experimentalism ethereal in essence, in its exploration of possibility and alterity, in its dizzying reality-within-reality more reminiscent of Arabian Nights than the play-within-a-play in Hamlet.
Though pasts and futures are undone and redone, by the end we are left where we began, as the action leaves little real consequence beyond the thought experiments that authors, readers, and reader-authors meddle with time and time (and space) again. The almost inconceivably immaculate tying together of loose ends and plot revelations is one aspect that still closely mirrors the resolution within Dickensian recapitulation: as a young Oliver Twist is miraculously reunited with his kinfolk, so an older Harry Potter becomes reconciled to his family, and to his young son whose rebellions uncannily reflect his own. In the end, the play teeters on the edge of its own re-invention, as does the time turner, its symbolic centerpiece, pausing at the precipice between redundancy and revolution:
“And time stops.
And then it turns over, thinks a bit, and begins spooling backwards, slow at first…
And then it speeds up.”
As ‘time stops’, we are given space to contemplate the timelessness of this tale. In both Harry Potter and Oliver Twist, “all is well” for our once-neglected orphans by the final closure, after each has wandered in the labyrinths of London and re-emerged morally for the better. Yet this new work opens up possibilities and alternatives that we as readers are left to imagine and create in an ongoing experimentation. Ultimately, the play should be read not only in relation to its fictional histories and futures, but as a new response and addition to the rich British literary tradition, in the constellation of complexities, in the intricacies and intersections of past and present, of space and time.