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How the smash hit Harry Potter play raised the bar for Australian theatre forever

Few stage shows have been as heavily hyped as Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, but just a few months into its hotly anticipated Australian debut, it’s more than lived up to expectations. Maxim Boon found out just what it took to bring the world’s most successful play to Melbourne.

As any fan of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter saga can tell you, the wonders of the wizarding world are a closely guarded secret, with all manner of magic deployed to keep the muggles unaware of the wand-wielders among them.

While perhaps a little less magical, a similar level of secrecy surrounds Harry and co’s first on-stage outing, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. After London’s West End and New York’s Broadway, where the show has scooped record numbers of Olivier and Tony Awards, Melbourne has become the third city to host the smash-hit play. Since opening in February, demand for tickets has been huge, and 50,000 more have just been released for performances until March next year.

With almost six hours of spoilers to protect, spread over its two parts, theatregoers (and this journalist) have been asked to keep the show’s twists and turns under wraps – or #KeepTheSecrets. The number of people keeping those secrets is already in the tens of thousands just a few months into the Cursed Child’s indefinite run at the Princess Theatre, so it’s an audacious ask.

For the production’s creators though, ambition of that scale is familiar territory. Hype ahead of its Melbourne premiere was mammoth and as the rave reviews have proven, Cursed Child has lived up to its reputation. While we can’t give too many details away, we can say that in just about every way – from the jaw-dropping technical elements, to the world-first collaborations between costume, set and effects designers, to the huge variety of different stage crafts in use at any one moment – this one-of-a-kind show has broken new ground.

But not only does it rank as one of the most technically sophisticated theatrical works ever made, it’s also one of the most well-heeled. More than $6.5 million has gone into refurbishing the Princess Theatre specifically for Cursed Child. This has included a top to bottom refit of its foyers and front of house spaces to match the Hogwartsian aesthetic of the play, so the audience are surrounded by Harry’s world as soon as they cross the venue’s threshold.

Among the new décor’s many winks to the Potter-verse, custom lighting fixtures throughout the space represent Hogwarts’ four houses, and specially commissioned monogrammed carpeting with the Hogwarts’ crest has been laid throughout. Those looking for an even fancier experience can splash out on the luxurious premium lounge and private suites, designed by Geraldine Maher, the interiors guru behind the recent refurb of the Forum Theatre.

The final touch of this immersive experience comes courtesy of the audience themselves. Many diehard fans – or “Potterheads” as they’re known – come to the show in full Hogwarts uniform, complete with wands, broomsticks and even a few cauldrons. It’s a place where anyone can proudly wear their Potter-loving hearts on their robed sleeves, without any fear of judgement.

In a way few other productions have, Cursed Child has upped the ante of the audience experience. The man behind this magic, technical director Cameron Flint, oversaw the show’s Down Under debut, including the refit of the Princess.

“On a normal show, there’d usually be a small degree of venue modification required, but this was on an unprecedented scale,” Flint says. “There was a wonderful moment when, after 10 long weeks of bump-in [installing the sets] and dry tech [running the show without the cast], the actors finished in the rehearsal studio and joined us in the theatre. Two worlds collided – they were gobsmacked.”

And it’s not just the areas the audience can see that have had a facelift. Even more was done behind the scenes to ensure the show’s breathtaking special effects go off without a hitch. Some scenes could be potentially dangerous for both cast and crew – flames, haze and great heights feature heavily – so multiple redundancies and contingency options are in place to keep the show on track and the actors safe. “Being a show in two parts, this was seriously magnified. I can’t go into too much detail, but I can safely say, there a few corners of the building that went untouched,” Flint says.

Pulling off a show of this scale and complexity takes some serious peoplepower. More than 100 industry-leading professionals come together for every performance, including a mammoth cast of 42 actors and 50 permanent show crew. Among the cast are some of Australian theatre’s most respected veterans, including in the role of Hermione Granger, Helpmann and Green Room Award-winner Paula Arundell.

Arundell has starred in productions for the country’s biggest theatre companies, including Sydney Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare. But being part of Cursed Child’s Australian premiere has been unlike anything she has experienced before. “Going to rehearsals was like turning up to a surprise party every day,” she explains. “Even though you’re being talked through how certain moments work, how they achieve a particular effect, it still feels like there is some legitimate magic going on in front of you.”

Arundell says developing the role of Hermione was a unique challenge, taking into account the expectations audiences bring with them to the theatre. She had almost no knowledge of the Harry Potter novels before joining the cast, but this ultimately turned out to be an advantage. “I actually thought that felt quite apt for Hermione, you know? She’s not interested in herself or what’s popular. She’s incredibly driven and can be totally obsessed with the things she loves,” she says. “I certainly didn’t panic, coming to the role not having that fandom, because the way that I think and the way that I work, and particularly the way I obsesses over the things that fascinate me, felt very much in line with Hermione’s nature.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Nowhere Boys and Utopia actor Sean Rees-Wemyss, who plays the pivotal character Albus Potter, Harry’s youngest son, has long been a super-fan. He says beginning rehearsals was like enrolling at Hogwarts. “The coolest thing was getting schedules, because they looked exactly like a school timetable: ‘10:30 – flying class. 12:45 – wand work.’ We had all this extra training to be show fit, which is not something I’m used to. It was really intense, but also, so, so cool.”

Rees-Wemyss is on stage for much of the almost six-hour show. In preparation for the role, he reached out to one of the few actors he knew who could relate: Sam Clemmett, who played the role of Albus during the show’s premiere season in the West End. “The most important tip from him has been about taking good care of your body and your mental wellbeing. I feel so lucky to be part of this production, but if I didn’t take care of myself, doing eight shows a week would quickly get pretty tough,” he says.

“It’s also about doing right by Albus. He’s such a meaty, rich, fascinating character. I get to be in his skin every night and I’m always learning something new about him. And if I don’t feel that, if I’m not focused for whatever reason, that’s when I know I’m letting him down … He’s a pretty fragile guy, he needs looking after. It’s really easy for him to fall into this dark place, so I think part of my responsibility, in a way, is stopping him from feeling that way. I know that sounds incredibly strange, but I guess that’s just a testament to how fully realised the world of this play is.”

For Broadsheet Melbourne.