Tag: Harry Potter

Theatre Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2

This review contains spoilers.

It feels impossible to review Harry Potter and the Cursed Child without first acknowledging the downright strangeness of the fact that it’s a play at all.

This is, after all, Harry Potter. It could have been any damn thing it wanted to be.

The franchise may have been born in Britain, but at this stage it’s basically an international phenomenon, with an international following. The Potter fandom is definitely one of the largest and most significant anywhere.

And only a tiny fraction of that fandom will ever be able to experience what’s being called “the eighth instalment” – part of the canon – in the Potter franchise as it’s supposed to be experienced.

There is a book, of course. (Inevitably.) But let’s be honest: Cursed Child is not Shakespeare. It is not Pinter. It is not even Noel Coward. In short, it’s not the sort of play whose strength lies in its dialogue, or its insights into the human condition. It’s more like Chicago, or Les Miserables: its strength lies in spectacle, its ability to conjure emotion through stagecraft. To read Cursed Child is to miss out on what actually makes it good.

And yet: theatre is uniquely expensive. Actually going to see Cursed Child, for most people, will involve not just the ticket cost (I think the cheapest tickets are £30 each for both parts) but also travel expenses, food and at least one night’s stay in London. And that’s if you get the Saturday tickets, which allow you to see both parts on the same day, but which are also the most in-demand. If you can only get weekday tickets, you’re looking at probably two days off work and two nights in London.*

There are families with Potterhead children – or, indeed, Potterhead parents – for whom the cost of a hardback book is beyond them.

Creators are free to do whatever they like, of course (especially if they are gazillionaires), but this particular creative decision does seem to have its roots in generating hype through exclusivity (the team behind the show are even running a patronising #KeepTheSecrets campaign). Why else make something that most of your fanbase are never going to see?

Let’s move on to the show itself, for we cannot rant all night.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a story about fathers and sons. It begins with the epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in which, as you probably remember, Harry sent his son Albus off to Hogwarts worrying about which house he would get into at school. This, then, is Albus’ story: son of the famous Harry Potter, always unable to live up to that legacy; sorted into Slytherin, a rubbish flier, almost friendless. A disappointment (so he thinks) to his famous father.

It’s also Scorpius’ story: son of Draco Malfoy, and unable to escape that legacy; friends with Harry Potter’s son, much to his father’s contempt.

Scorpius and Albus feel like losers. As a result, they’re manipulated into going back in time using a stolen Time-Turner to rescue Cedric Diggory, who they see as another “spare”, someone who didn’t need to die.

Their meddling with time has predictably disastrous results. In one alternative future, Albus got sorted into Gryffindor and is forced to break up his friendship with Scorpius; in another, Voldemort won the Battle of Hogwarts, killed Harry Potter and took over the school. Meanwhile, the boys’ parents are going out of their minds looking for them, and trying at the same time to deal with the unexplained resurgence of dark creatures across the wizarding world.

Cursed Child has quite a lot in common with the later Potter books: it has no discernible structure – being more a succession of “and then”s – and, seemingly, no particular project beyond the fannish question of “what would Harry/Draco be like as a father?” The plot, specifically, becomes ever more byzantine as we wade into Part 2, throwing in an unnecessary extra twist in the form of the daughter of Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange (instantly distracting everyone in the audience with the entirely unwanted image of Voldemort having sex, because really?), who wants to bring back Voldemort by going back in time and stopping him attacking the Potters. Which means the entire cast – Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Draco, Albus and Scorpius – all have to go back in time too and make sure that he does kill the Potters. My question is: doesn’t this radically alter the moral universe of the series? Doesn’t it mean that every time we read about Godric’s Hollow, we now have to imagine everyone there watching it happen – and doing nothing?

The play doesn’t really answer these questions, because it doesn’t seem terribly interested in thinking about how the mechanics of its time travel works. In Prisoner of Azkaban, everything that happened stayed happened: that’s how Harry survived the Dementor attack, casting the Patronus on his second time round the loop to save the version of himself that was going round the loop the first time. We can argue about whether or not time travel actually works like that (as the Resident Grammarian likes to), but at least it’s consistent. Whereas Cursed Child treats time travel as much more like a McGuffin that lets us perform various fanfic-type thought experiments with the franchise: what if Ron and Hermione never got together? What if Voldemort won the Battle of Hogwarts? And so on. Albus and Scorpius hop between timelines like alternative universes, with no particular regard for causality – except in the one case where it’s plot-convenient for something clever to happen with time travel. (It involves a blanket and some spilled potion, for readers who have seen the play.) Using time travel but skirting the thorny issues it raises seems like a) a waste, and b) cheating.

I’ve now bitched about Cursed Child for almost a thousand words. And yet, in all honesty, I loved it. Because it is very good – certainly better than the later Potter books – at being a fanwork. It’s aware, at a fundamental level, that for a huge majority of its audience Harry Potter isn’t just a fantasy series they happened to enjoy: it’s a narrative whose symbols are, for better or for worse, embedded deep in our psyches. It deploys those symbols as myth to press its audience’s buttons, so to speak. It doesn’t need to explain why stumbling upon Dementors at Hogwarts is bad, beyond bad; it just needs to put those Dementors there, with a suitably menacing soundtrack, to evoke fear and horror and suspense. The audience – including me – gasped when beloved characters’ names were mentioned in unexpected contexts; laughed at franchise in-jokes; cried at emotional bits that got their force not from any particular brilliance in the script-writing but because of the history we have with the characters. For example: Snape sacrificing himself in one of the alternative pasts to bring about the “correct” one again, and Scorpius telling him that he’ll be remembered as a hero. For example: Harry’s awful recurring nightmares about Voldemort and the cupboard under the stairs. The reason the play doesn’t have a single coherent project or structure is that it is, instead, a collection of resonant moments, continually reaching back to the original series for their emotional force. And its power in doing so is increased exponentially by the fact that it’s a shared experience: all those fans, having all those emotions at the same time – it’s like an emotional amplifier. This is something only theatre can do.

I haven’t yet mentioned the acting or the stagecraft, on the principle of saving the best till last. Because it’s really these things that bring the production alive. Anthony Boyle as Scorpius is easily the standout performance: weird, hunched and often a little scary – and full of pathos, too. Jamie Parker as Harry Potter is also fantastic – what a change it makes to have a decent actor playing Harry, bringing the full force of the character’s angst and trauma right to the fore. (This is hands-down one of the best things about the play, too: that we see Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, struggling with his traumatic past, and struggling with being a father; that he’s still able to make strong decisions despite it. It’s OK not to be OK.)

Music and dance are important to the play, too, holding those emotional moments and amplifying them further. My favourite scene (out of many contenders) was one in which Scorpius and Albus, forbidden to be friends, climb up and down and over staircases being shunted around on wheels by other members of the cast, to the soundtrack of a bass-led Imogen Heap instrumental track. It’s a beautiful sequence, one that really brought home to me that I was watching a love story of sorts. (Incidentally, I will forgive J.K. Rowling practically everything if Scorpius and Albus turn out to be bisexual and become boyfriends.) Scene transitions are made with much cloak-swishing; Albus’ confusion in a Charms lesson is rendered by students dancing gracefully around him while he flails clumsily. It’s a show constantly on the move, accentuating its lead characters’ isolation. And the magic! The production team have used every resource at their disposal to make objects fly, portraits move, people turn into other people. There’s one particular effect that neither I nor my friend could work out, and for all I know it could have been actual magic: whenever the characters used the Time-Turner the whole theatre seemed to vibrate, the air distorting like a bubble. It was astonishing, and wonderful.

I felt utterly heartsick for a while after seeing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, reluctant to leave its enchantment despite its very real problems. And that makes me angry: because this is not something that any Potterhead should miss. And so many will. If you can, go and see it.

*I’m lucky enough to live and work in central London, and I saw the shows on a Thursday and a Friday night. It cost me about £50 to see the two parts: £30 for one ticket, about £10 for four Underground fares, about £10 for two dinners at Wasabi. £50 is not necessarily a bank-breaking sum, but nor is it a trivial amount.

Top Ten Books About Friendship

  1. The Return of the King – J.R.R. Tolkien. This is possibly not the most obvious choice: it’s a fantasy epic about the war between Good and Evil, after all. But were there ever such good friends as Sam and Frodo? And it’s a book that’s unafraid to call male friendship love.
  2. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. This is a found family novel, and as in all families there are tensions. But there’s also mutual support, and practical help, and a kind word in times of trouble.
  3. Uprooted – Naomi Novik. There are problems with this novel: Foz Meadowes has pointed out that the central romance is abusive. It does, though, have a lovely layered portrait of a female friendship, one that recognises the deep-rooted jealousy friendship often carries alongside love.
  4. The City’s Son – Tom Pollock. This is another book with a rare portrait of female friendship: Beth and Pen’s relationship is stronger than romance and more important than the city.
  5. Fly By Night – Frances Hardinge. Clent and Mosca’s friendship is grudging, but all the more endearing for that: it’s one of those stories where the rogues turn out to have a (deeply hidden) heart of gold.
  6. Palimpsest – Catherynne Valente. Is this really about friendship? Valente’s Quartet are strangers, and end up more like lovers than friends. But it is about finding the people you belong with, which feels right for this list.
  7. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffers and Annie Barrows. This is a charming romance, but it’s also a book in which community and friendship stands cheerfully and defiantly before the horrors of war.
  8. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling. Again, I think the early Harry Potter books are at least partly about finding a place where you belong. Harry, Ron and Hermione are surely one of the most iconic friendship groups in literature.
  9. The Waste Lands – Stephen King. The third book in King’s Dark Tower series, The Waste Lands is where Roland meets his new ka-tet – his new found family – after uncounted years alone. It is beyond heartwarming.
  10. Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie. The last book in Leckie’s trilogy sees Breq, an ex-hive mind who’s lost so much of her self, start forming new relationships – almost without realising it. The feels.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Characters Who Struggle

I was thinking this morning that I’ve read quite a few books recently about characters for whom life is a struggle; not because they have to contend with dystopias or ravening monsters or war or tragedy, though some of them do, but just because, you know, emotions, or because being a human means that sometimes you don’t want to get out of bed and talk to other people. So this post sort of leads on from my review of Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution.

A couple of these also aren’t books, because I thought thematic coherence was more important than pedantry. In this one, isolated instance.

  1. Marya Morevna – Deathless, Catherynne Valente. “You will live as you live anywhere. With difficulty, and grief.”
  2. Katin – Nova, Samuel Delany. There’s a fantastic bit in Nova, which is a novel all about perception and subjectivity, where Katin says (I haven’t got the book with me, alas, so a paraphrase) that if someone seems to respond negatively to something he says he goes over all the different ways the conversation could have gone in his head. And the Mouse, bless him, says, “I like you, Katin. I was just busy, is all.” Something like that goes on in my head practically every day.
  3. Harry Potter – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Jack Thorne, J.K. Rowling and John Tiffany. Now, in the original books Harry is at best inoffensive (Philosopher through to Goblet) and at worst irritating and entitled as only a teenager can be. But grown-up Harry is a different prospect altogether: traumatised by the Dursleys’ abuse and by the Battle of Hogwarts and by years of sharing Voldemort’s fucking mind.
  4. Kesha – Alice Isn’t Dead, Joseph Fink. A podcast, not a book. At some point Kesha, the narrator, says something like: “I’m afraid of nearly everything, nearly all the time. But it doesn’t stop me doing what I need to do.”
  5. Meg Carpenter – Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas. I am not going to shut up about Our Tragic Universe; it is hands down my favourite book of the year so far. (Apart from my reread of The Scar, which I’m not counting.) Meg is slightly having a mid-life crisis, stuck in a toxic relationship with a useless boyfriend and half in love with an older man. And wondering if we are all living in a computer simulation, and about what the point of an afterlife would be, and whether there really is a Beast on Dartmoor. And about stories. And her life gets incrementally better, bit by bit, throughout the book; so there’s never any huge revelation or massive argument or great triumph; just a climb to hope and new possibility. It’s utterly lovely.
  6. Pencil Khan – The Glass Republic, Tom Pollock. Pen’s surviving with PTSD after being possessed by a creature of barbed wire in The City’s Son. But, like Kesha, she doesn’t let it stop her do what she needs to do.
  7. Lirael – Lirael, Garth Nix. Lirael opens with its eponymous heroine contemplating suicide. I sort of wonder whether this actually gets treated seriously enough by Nix, because she doesn’t just think about it in an emo-teenager sort of way, she actually goes up out onto the mountain and prepares to jump off. But, in any case, I think this story of lonely Lirael finding a purpose and friendship and a family is a hopeful one.
  8. Zan – The Stars are Legion, Kameron Hurley. Zan has lost her memory. Over and over again. She knows she’s done terrible things, but can’t remember exactly what, or why. And still she goes on.
  9. Bellis Coldwine – The Scar, China Mieville. Actually I am going to mention The Scar. Bellis fascinates me. She’s thoroughly unlikable, and yet Mieville gets us to sympathise with her, gets us under her skin. She’s torn away from her city, without any way back. And she keeps her grief raw, refuses to accept her new reality, as a form of defiance against her captives: the only method of resistance she has.
  10. Grace Marks – Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood. Grace is another character who uses her emotional instability as a weapon, a weapon that eventually grants her a kind of victory. She resists reading by doctors and vicars and others who want to co-opt her experience, her selfhood, for their own social or commercial ends. And she, too, goes on.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Bookish Things I’d Like To Own

  1. A Jay Johnstone Tolkien oil painting. I mentioned this particular life goal here about two weeks ago. I just love these paintings: they strip away the modern realism that characterises the high fantasy aesthetic at the moment in favour of a more thematically appropriate medieval feel. For instance, isn’t this treatment of Isildur fascinating?
  2. A time turner necklace. I am still operating under a fairly significant play hangover (like a book hangover but for plays) after going to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child last week, so it may be that this particular wish has dissipated by next week.
  3. Ankh-Morpork board game. I played this at a geek meetup a month or so ago, and it is fantastic (unlike the wretched The Witches game). Everyone gets a different role and you FIGHT for control of Ankh-Morpork! And there are special-effects cards with, like, Susan Sto Helit and the Librarian and it’s AWESOME.
  4. This Josh Kirby Librarian print. This list is going to have a lot of prints in it. Josh Kirby’s work is so detailed and animated and I would definitely not object to looking at this every day.
  5. A Charter Mark necklace. This exists! It kind of took my breath away when I saw it – not because it looks particularly complicated to make, but, oh my, the nostalgia. I love these books so much I almost don’t notice.
  6. Beszel/Ul Qoma “Unity” badge. Yes, I know it’s horrifically ironic to buy merchandise based on socialist novels, and also I didn’t like The City and the City very much, but this is quite cool.
  7. This Gormenghast print. I just found this on Etsy and wow, I love that really intricate artwork – very like Chris Riddell’s work. In fact, I might buy this right now.
  8. This Midsummer Night’s Dream t-shirt. Isn’t it pretty? It reminds me of that unspeakably lovely Russell T. Davies adaptation of the play on the BBC last year.
  9. This Reading is Radical print. It may not be entirely true. But look at it, godsdammit.
  10. This Little Women bookmark. Because, oh, yes. What a perfect quote.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

 

Top Ten Subversive Female Characters

In honour of International Women’s Day.

Also, the Tournament of Books has started! Unfortunately I cannot honour both at once, but you should definitely go read the Tournament – it is wonderful and thoughtful and, yes, subversive.

  1. Alana – Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Alana’s a fighter and a mother and a lover. She’s determined not to give up her own identity and her own right to defend herself; and her right, too, to fall in love with whomever the hell she likes. She’s sassy and sexy and vulnerable and real.
  2. Nyx – God’s War, Kameron Hurley. Honestly, Nyx is not really a nice person. In fact, she’s utterly ruthless, ready to kill and betray to protect herself. But she’s bisexual and forthright and defiantly, unapologetically female.
  3. Adora Belle Dearheart – Going Postal, Terry Pratchett. Ignore the film version: book Adora is not going to be shoehorned into the sentimentalities of traditional romance. If she’s going to date someone, it will be on her terms.
  4. Lyra Belacqua – Northern Lights, Philip Pullman. Lyra is not good. She is not pretty, or honest, or nice. She is loyal, though, and fierce, and clever. And she knows what’s right and wrong.
  5. Mosca Mye – Fly By Night, Frances Hardinge. Mosca’s very much in the mould of Lyra. She’s a liar. She runs away from her family. She has a pet goose. She’s nothing that a girl is expected to be: but she thinks for herself, and she works to make things better for others.
  6. Hermione Granger – Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling. Again: Hermione’s not pretty. Nor is she, particularly, a fighter. But she’s clever, and brave in her own way, and she works almost behind the scenes to bring Voldemort down.
  7. Emily Roland – the Temeraire series, Naomi Novik. She’s a female aviator, and not particularly showy about it: matter-of-factly in love with a dragon captain she can’t marry, and straightforward about having sex with him; quietly convinced, in defiance of society’s surprise, of her being just as competent as her male counterparts.
  8. Sonmi-451 – Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. Sonmi is quietly, cold-bloodedly defiant and brave. She knows that she has been lied to and manipulated, and she knows what her future is. And still, she goes on, because she also knows that she’s sowing the seeds of rebellion.
  9. Katniss Everdeen – The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins. Katniss may not be a subtle revolutionary, but I think that the fact that she has no good choices and no real good ending makes her important in YA.
  10. Yalda – The Clockwork Rocket, Greg Egan. What makes Yalda so interesting is that her rebellion is about doing science: creating space for her and her friends to have a meaningful intellectual life, while fighting their biology to give themselves a future.

2016 Roundup

Lord. It’s the beginning of a new year again.

2016 was a better reading year for me than 2015. It had to be, really, given everything else that went on around the world.

And so, without too much further reflection: let’s begin.

The English Student’s Favourite Things of 2016

As always, these are things I first read or watched in 2016, not necessarily things published or released in that year. How organised do you think I am?

TV: Class: For Tonight We Might Die. Class just edges it over the last episode of Firefly because it was such a surprise to see a Doctor Who spinoff that actually cared about its characters and that treated its SFnal premise with something like respect. I’m hideously behind on the series, but I’ve every intention of catching up. Eventually.

Film: A Midsummer Night’s DreamRussell T Davies’ luminous and magical version of Shakespeare’s play gave me an emotional hangover for days: joyful, hopeful and inclusive.

Book: Railsea – China Mieville. A story of deserts and giant moles and people who live on trains and salvage and stories, all woven up with Mieville’s militant socialism and vibrant intellect. And that ending

Misc.: Nine Worlds 2016. Three days of pure and unadulterated geekery. What else is there to say?

2016 Reading Stats

  • I read 72 books in 2016 – the same as I read last year, and one fewer than I was hoping to read, thanks to a miscalculation last week. So close
  • The longest book I read was J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which needs, oh, less than half of its 766 pages, I’d say. Tied for shortest were Saga‘s second, third and fourth volumes, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, which in contrast deserved every page they had. Overall, I read 26,492 pages in 2016 – down from 27,390 last year.
  • The oldest book I read was Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, first published in 1911. The average age of the books I read in 2016 was 16 – lower than last year’s 25.
  • Genre: I read 30 fantasy novels (42%), 17 SF novels (24%) and 6 “literary fiction” novels (8%) – although, obviously, take that latter category with a pinch of salt. Also: four thrillers, three humour novels, two historical, one horror (House of Leaves) and one “classic” (The Secret Garden). So I obviously slid back towards genre this year.
  • I read 19 YA novels (26%) – an increase on last year.
  • 21% of the books I read were re-reads – a slight increase on last year’s 19%, but not a disastrous one.
  • And, finally, my favourite statistic: 58% of the books I read in 2016 were by women – an improvement on my goal of 50%!

Film Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I admit, I was sceptical about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The Harry Potter franchise seems to have turned into a bit of a cash cow recently, with both Fantastic Beasts and the West End play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child released in book form as well as theatrically, which just seems a bit crass, frankly.

But for someone of my generation actually seeing the film at some point seemed, well, compulsory. Plus, the delightful Eddie Redmayne (who, by the way, is worth the price of admission all by himself, even if we did go on Saver Night) was very much a temptation.

Fantastic Beasts, then, set in the Harry Potter universe in 1926 (forty-odd years before the events of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone), sees twenty-something wizard Newt Scamander (played by the lovely Eddie) arriving in New York with a suitcase full of various magical creatures, all of which, incidentally, are outlawed by the American wizarding community. Inevitably, some of the creatures escape.

The plot is rather loose: it sees Eddie lurching Britishly and oddly Doctor Who-ishly across New York, rounding up – or, at least, attempting to round up – his creatures, which are causing various forms of chaos in various ways, and in the process entangling with the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic, MACUSA. In particular, he’s trailed and occasionally aided by Porpentina Goldstein, an ex-Auror demoted for being a little too dedicated to her duty, her sister Queenie – a Manic Pixie Dream Girl if ever I saw one – and genial Muggle Jacob Kowalski whom Newt accidentally draws into the magical world. (By the way, the American word for “Muggle”, “No-Maj”, may be the most ridiculous name I have heard in a long time. And I’ve read a lot of high fantasy.)

Fantastic Beasts is Rowling’s first outing as a screenwriter, and it seems to mark something of a return to what’s good about her writing. In particular, like the early Harry Potter books, the film’s whimsical surface overlies something much darker: for beneath New York’s lushly rendered 1920s glamour (ooh, flapper dresses and diamond necklaces and beautiful long peacoats) roils a melting pot of tension and mistrust. Particularly, the shadow of Gellert Grindelwald, who will be familiar to readers of the later Harry Potter books as essentially the wizarding world’s Hitler analogue, lies long across David Yates’ frames. A sub-plot sees the rise of a Muggle movement called the New Salem Philanthropic Society, which holds that Witches Are Among Us and should be burned at the stake, and which is led by a nasty, puritanical woman, Mary Lou Barebone, an abusive mother whose intolerance of magic proves disastrous. A few bare scenes take us into the political upper echelons of Muggle New York society: a dinner hosted by a senator running for President is imagistically very reminiscent of Nazism (the senator speaks in front of a blown-up banner depicting himself, in a hall of classical marble and high ceilings), while a scene with the senator’s media tycoon father feels disturbingly Trumpian. Not even MACUSA escapes: its president (unfortunately the only person of colour in the film) is ruthless and contemptuous towards her staff, towards poor Eddie, and towards the film’s most tragic character, Mary Lou’s adopted son Credence. There is a lot going on here, politically, and it makes what could have been a frivolous cash cow actually a rather grounded look at the poison and unrest that intolerance and ungentleness can generate. It’s a credit to Rowling’s writing, too, that this simmering tension, although it does give a tone of bittersweetness to the film, doesn’t drag it down into “depressing” territory: the tragedy and the terror are leavened and anchored by Newt’s goodheartedness and the frequently adorable antics of his animals, as well as some lovely production design.

I didn’t think I’d say this, but I’m actually very interested to see what Rowling comes up with for the inevitable sequel. Fantastic Beasts is, like Harry Potter was when it was first published, an unexpected surprise.