It has been revealed that J.K. Rowling, author of the best-selling Harry Potter series, is set to collaborate on a new stage play. Rowling will act as co-producer and will collaborate with a writer on this exploration of ‘the previously untold story of Harry Potter’s early years as an orphan and outcast’. London and New York producers Sonia Friedman and Colin Callender are behind the concept. Rowling has previously rejected several proposals to bring the wizarding world to the West End, but explained in this announcement that ‘Sonia and Colin’s vision was the only one that really made sense to me, and which had the sensitivity, intensity and intimacy I thought appropriate for bringing Harry’s story to the stage. After a year in gestation it is exciting to see this project moving on to the next phase’.
Friedman and Callender will bring valuable experience to the production. Friedman has produced the hit musical Book of Mormon and the current revival of Jez Butterworth’s Mojo while Callender has worked extensively in TV, film and theatre. He is best known for the RSC adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby and for the hugely successful Broadway play Lucky Guy, starring Tom Hanks. A writer and director have yet to be announced, but with two such illustrious producers and the original creator of the Harry Potter universe on board, the play looks to be on the right track to success.
The reaction online has been mixed. Non-fans, of course, accuse Rowling of ‘milking it’, squeezing every last drop of capital out of the franchise to the detriment of artistic integrity. Many believe she should have stopped after the final film and that theme parks, studio tours, interactive websites, merchandise and West End plays are taking it too far, even exploiting devoted fans. Her apparent reluctance to move on from Potter has also been attributed to the low-key publication and modest reception of her two adult novels The Casual Vacancy and The Cuckoo’s Calling.
While most fans welcome the fresh insight into Harry’s world, there is some disappointment regarding the choice of subject for the play. Why focus on a part of Harry’s life that has always been characterised as unremarkable? The miserable, abusive childhood he suffered at the hands of the Dursleys seems hardly an interesting or uplifting subject for a play which will presumably be targeted at children and young adults. Why not explore Voldemort’s past, the aftermath of his defeat, James and Lily’s relationship, the lives of Harry’s children, or any number of areas of the Potterverse that fans have millions of questions about? Why is Rowling choosing to simply fill in a minor hole in the chronology when she could expand the story in so many other ways?
I’m not going to partake in a blindly devoted defence of Rowling (although I am a huge admirer), but I do feel that many of these criticisms are short-sighted. Firstly, the extension of a franchise is not exploitation. Fans do have brains. We are not physically compelled to buy every single thing with the word ‘Potter’ on it. Secondly, J.K. Rowling cannot be accused of greed. She is a founder of the children’s charity Lumos, which works to end the institutionalisation of children in uncaring environments, and the president of Gingerbread, which supports single-parent families. In 2012 she lost her ‘billionaire status’ due to the extent of her charitable donations. So who can justify arguing against additions to this woman’s capital, when a lot of this will find itself channelled into some of the most important causes in Britain and Europe? The idea that the books can be tainted by too much success and revenue for their creator is absurd.
The choice of subject for the play is a much more interesting question. I did think, at first, that it sounded like quite a depressing premise – the Dursleys are without a doubt some of the nastiest characters in the books. On further reflection, I see a great deal of potential in the concept. Prequels have always been popular and flashbacks were often the most effective episodes in the books and films (think of Harry’s journey into Snape’s heartbreaking memories in the final instalment). It ties in with an important theme from Half-Blood Prince; to understand the man you need to understand his back story.
What about magic? No one wants a Harry Potter story without magic. It’s the most important element and Harry won’t even have discovered he’s a wizard yet! But haven’t the Harry Potter stories always been about more than just spells and potions? It sounds like this play will focus more on in-depth character exploration, an area in which Rowling has always excelled. In fact, the dramatic irony provided by Harry’s ignorance of his own powers could lend itself easily to natural audience engagement and even some comic moments. I am very much looking forward to seeing how the signature Harry Potter sense of humour translates onto the stage. It will definitely be needed in this story, which will hopefully reveal a slightly more human side to Harry’s horrible relatives. Knowing the extraordinary path his life will take, it may be fun for the audience to pick out early indications of his magical abilities. No doubt this will constitute a major source of interest.
Although it will be strange for fans to see Harry Potter portrayed by someone other than Daniel Radcliffe (he does have his faults, but has become synonymous with the role), I welcome the development of this play. Harry and his world are a staple of contemporary culture and while no one can guarantee that this fresh insight into his life will be successful, it is a worthwhile concept. We won’t be making our minds up as to its effectiveness until 2015 so this year we will have to content ourselves with re-readings, re-viewings and the upcoming BBC adaptation of The Casual Vacancy.