Harry Potter in theatreland: Ladder to the past

Other people’s places:  The seashore at Hythe where the ice-creams are, ghost tanks on a surrendered bridge over the Borsphorous.

Having worked in the theatre for a decade, more or less living there, I’ve recently returned as an audience member. When I visit a theatre I am always appraising the space, comparing it to The Royal Opera House where I grew up. Recently, I’ve had a series of extraordinary, revitalising experiences included the raucous, joyous, eye-popping Titus Andronicus, the strangely-familiar modern iambic pentameter of King Charles III and Bill Nighy dancing, helium-toed, through Skylight.

In the past few years I’ve been to see three adaptations of books, framed by three different proscenium arches: Jane Eyre at the National Theatre, Wolf Hall and now the new Harry Potter play The Cursed Child  last week (more extension than adaptation). No spoilers: #keepthesecrets etc. etc.

Plays adapted from beloved books are especially challenging, a particular space and place was conjured up in the mind’s eye and the idea of making them tangible and reframing them is something of which I was weary. Matching the literary place called Jane Eyre in my head, where the Yorkshire moors more windswept, more cinematic, ‘emotion-places’ (Lovell, 2013) – the place mirrored the emotion in the text, the weather a character in the book, the cold of Lowood seeping through. The play did it. The staging was spare, a wooden contraption of steps, balconies, never-ending like an Escher print, the chararacters travelled around it in circular fashion. The actors set the coach going by crouching and jogging together and you were spirited onto a jostling, clopping contraption, stark planes of fields and sky bumping past outside. The story is linear, there are no time jumps or disconnections. The feeling and spirit was in place, the idea of Yorkshireness, bleakness, the feeling of coming home, lighting the fire first at Thornfield Hall, running from it then to it only after it had been extinguished.

The place was Victoriana, it was the tropes, hooped skirts, bonnets, as much as the dry stone walls. In the play the dresses were suspended from the ceiling, they hung like disembodied dolls, portraits of ancestors with unfamiliar haircuts were also let down from the ceiling denoting the discomfort and formality of the tightly-framed Reed’s house. With very little, a shadow of place emerged and, like a metonym, my mind completed the picture from a fragment. No more needed.

The staging of Wolf Hall was different. It was also sparse, with clever tricks, but the book was peopled with Cromwell’s thoughts, as he fingered the cloth of a sleeve and calculated the worth of a merchant. The place was his subconscious, built around his values and sums, a bushel of this, a bolt of the blue. The pared, bare staging was a setting for the eyes of Ben Miles, who looked out at the audience, like a doctor, reading us, sizing and weighing us up. Warmed hands around a spout of flame from the floor and the ghosts processing across the stage slowly, at the back, Wolsey, Anne Boleyn. I would have liked to see the mechanistic workings of Cromwell’s mind thrown up in projection mapping on the walls, the cogs turning.

Wolf Hall didn’t feel as Tudor as it could, the tapestries were missing, the sheen of the gold, the clothes were those familiar silhouettes, but never more.  The well-trodden ground of those times was less sinister, less subtle, jolly. Perhaps it was the audience, historians attracted to performed historical fiction.

So, Harry Potter? The blending of the books, movies, theme parks (Harry Potter World) are all superimposed at a number of levels when you see The Cursed Child.  This is called a heterotopia and the shifting simultaneity between modes of storytelling fits a world where  staircases swivel and move.

I’m #keepingthesecrets but it was good to see some old friends again, hear familiar names spoken and revisit some of the story’s spaces. I’m nostalgic and the play is full of tropes; Ron’s woolly jumper, boarding schools, the 1940’s Ministry.

I’m always in several places within the dreamscape at once: somewhere within my own timescale (where I was when I read the book) and lost in the plot. It isn’t giving too much away to say that the story retains the hyper-reality of the original where ladders stretch and time turns. The audience was young, at least 30 years younger than normal in dramatic theatre. They were silent, then responsive, gasping at the peak moments, immersed. Nothing was lost in the play, it was right for the story, new twists could happen on a stage and they did. When we’re no longer keeping secrets there’s much more to say…but for now, it was just wonderful. I got onto the train home and when I checked my messages found out there was a coup underway in Turkey. The world felt less real than the theatre. There are always at least two spaces, frequently more.



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