Matt Trueman: Harry Potter could learn from Hamilton
In the week where Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opens in previews, Matt Trueman looks at how the show could turn a whole generation to theatre
Unless you've spent the last year locked up in Azkaban, you'll know that Harry Potter is about to hit the stage. It has its first preview tomorrow night, and, even though I'm no Potterhead myself – I speed-read the books in my early twenties – I'm massively, massively excited by it.
Here's why. Just as Harry Potter got a generation reading, it could now do the same for theatre. Tapping into a cultural phenomenon as huge – and a fanbase as heartfelt – as Harry Potter is no small feat. It will bring new audiences to the art-form, and audiences already invested in the story at that, many of them for the very first time. Inevitably some of them will get hooked. It's just what happens.
That producer Sonia Friedman, who approached JK Rowling with the idea, has brought John Tiffany on board as director looks an inspired choice. He has a keen sense of theatricality, and, as shows like Black Watch and Let The Right One In have made clear, knows the magic of marrying simplicity and spectacle. The promise of a revamped theatre space is an intriguing one too, suggesting that this has the potential to be a theatrical experience that surprises people – a long way from many people's staple idea of theatre with its ruffs and RP accents.
There won't just be one production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but thousands upon thousands upon thousands
As with Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet last year, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will turn theatre into a significant cultural event – as much a must-see as any Hollywood blockbuster, as noteworthy as any news story. Over the next six weeks, a lot of attention and anticipation will gather. It might seem like a steam-roller for a while, rolling over the rest of the art-form temporarily, but that level of focus and excitement is rare. We should celebrate theatre that makes the headlines. In the long run, it helps the whole art-form.
Of course, not everyone will get in. Nodding to the sheer number of fans worldwide, the clout of the franchise, Friedman recently likened the endeavour to opening the new Star Wars movie in a single cinema. It's a great analogy, but it flags an issue. So many people are invested in this story and these characters that putting its next instalment into the theatre, with its limited capacity and its fixed location, is arguably exclusive, not to mention expensive. Rowling has said she hopes to take the piece around the world in time, but, for now, that will be little consolation to the millions of Potterheads worldwide.
Out of that, however, comes a much more exciting possibility. On 31 July, the day after the official opening, the working script will be published around the world. Two months before publication, it's already at number 6 on Amazon's charts, having been in the top 100 since the day it was announced in February. That means thousands, tens of thousands, of people will read a play script – many of them for the very first time in their life.
The Palace Theatre will be the focal point. It could be the best shop window theatre has ever had.
Reading a play requires a different mindset to reading a novel. A script isn't just a story. It's a show. Reading a script doesn't just mean imagining a world, but filling in gaps, decoding stage directions and, in a sense, directing the show in your head. Come 31 July, there won't just be one production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but thousands upon thousands upon thousands; each with their own sets, their own costumes, their own performances. You could call it the biggest participatory theatre piece ever.
Just think what that might do – how many budding directors, designers, actors that might birth. Imagine how many kids will stage their own scenes in living rooms and gardens all over the world, an act that overlaps beautifully with the behaviour of fandom as it is, all that Comic Con cosplay and fan fiction. Anyone can be Hermione. Anyone can be Ron. Anyone can be Harry. No need for polyjuice potion, either. People can own Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for themselves.
For all that, though, the Palace Theatre will still be the focal point. That presents a unique opportunity, one of which I really hope Friedman and co will take advantage. It could be the best shop window theatre has ever had.
Faced with huge crowds gathering for Hamilton's daily ticket lottery, Lin-Manuel Miranda started #Ham4Ham. Each day, on the steps of the Richard Rogers theatre, Manuel would introduce an impromptu performance. It might be a special appearance from Lea Salonga, a number from Newsies or even some kids tackling raps from Hamilton itself. All of them ended up online, available all over the world. What if the same happened on the steps of the Palace? If George Ikediashi rocked up with Threepenny Opera's opening number or if BAC's Beatbox Academy popped out a performance or if the cast of Show Boat stepped up and sang?
Doing so won't take a huge amount, just a little focus on logistics and a shot of generosity – but there's a chance here, arguably unrivalled, to celebrate theatre as a whole, to get people making it and watching it in droves. Now that would be magic.