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Practical magic: how Harry Potter's wizarding world was conjured on stage

Potter fans can now discover a new adventure, not on the page but on the stage, in 'Harry Potter And The Cursed Child'. The show's Scenic Supervisor Brett Banakis reveals the (magic) tricks of his trade to Maxim Boon.

Published in 2007, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows – the seventh and final instalment of JK Rowling’s smash-hit series of bestselling novels – concludes with an epilogue in which the titular boy wizard is all grown up. Some 19 years after the fateful “Battle of Hogwarts” and the defeat of would-be despot Voldemort, the wizarding world remains at peace. On Kings Cross Station's enigmatic Platform 9¾, Potter bids his two eldest children a fond farewell as they board the train bound for his alma mater, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. As the book’s final sentence simply concludes: “All was well.”

With this parting chapter, Rowling seemed to be offering a contented final cadence to a saga that had kept readers the world over bewitched for more than a decade. After a childhood fraught with danger and dark magic, it appeared Harry Potter’s adult years would finally be rewarded with gentle obscurity.

But this was not the end of his story.

The franchise’s fandom is amongst the most powerful in contemporary pop culture and the publication of the final book did little to diminish global appetites for all things Potter. Until 2011, fans were kept relatively sated by the blockbuster film adaptations, with The Deathly Hallows even split into two films to ensure the fidelity of its narrative (not to mention maximising on box office revenues). But as the ferocious global demand for merch, companion books, prequel movies, fan fiction (of both the wholesome and erotic varieties), tattoos, waxworks and even theme parks continues to prove, Rowling’s storytelling has cast a powerfully enduring spell.

Another film or even a novel may have been the most obvious vehicles for bringing Harry out of retirement. But ever the innovator, Rowling would turn to a medium that had never previously been used to explore the Potter-verse: the stage. The result has not only offered a completely new window on her wizarding world, but has also conjured one of the biggest theatrical successes in decades. 

In June 2016, Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, directed by John Tiffany, opened at the Palace Theatre in London’s West End. It has since been performed well over 1000 times, transferring to New York’s Broadway and now Melbourne, where it will receive its Australian premiere at the newly renovated Princess Theatre. No expense has been spared in importing this smash hit play Down Under; ahead of the start of Cursed Child's open-ended season, the Princess has undergone a dramatic Potter-themed facelift so theatregoers can enjoy a fully immersive experience.

The two-part stage production picks up where the epilogue of The Deathly Hallows ends, sending Harry, Hermione and Ron on a new adventure while introducing another Potter as the central protagonist: Harry’s youngest son Albus Severus. With Rowling in charge of the narrative, the beats of the plot were never a cause for concern. Bringing this magical universe to life on stage, however, required an entirely new method of theatre-making, as the production’s co-designer and International Scenic Supervisor Brett Banakis shares.

“It was a bit like we, as a [creative] team, were going to our own little school of witchcraft and wizardry,” he says. “It was very clear to us that creating some impossibilities on stage, visually, would have to come from a combination of things. It would partly have to come from technical tricks that are pretty commonplace in modern theatre. But it would also have to include moments when we let the audience see the mechanics of the trick, like Japanese bunraku [puppet] theatre, where there’s some joy in understanding the magic because we’re letting you see it. There'd also have to be what we call ‘true illusion’, which are the kind of, ‘Holy crap, how did they do that?’ moments. It’s really a blend of those three things that come together to give the production its depth and complexity. We’re not just trying to create some kind of Vegas-style magic show, where it’s all flash and spectacle. There’s some subtlety and nuance needed as well.”

Developing the show took several years, with a level of holistic collaboration between its team of creatives that is all but unheard of. "From a technical standpoint, this show is somewhat unique in that every moment of magic or special effects you see on stage is not just thrown in there by the set team or the illusions team or the sound or costume or lighting designers. It requires every single department working together to make these things happen," Banakis explains. "I won’t call them endless resources, but there were certainly generous resources at our disposal to figure out the best possible ways to realise the mind-boggling things JK had asked for in the script. And that involved every single collaborator in a room together, discussing and dissecting each individual moment of the show, all 95 scenes, deciding the where and what and how of pretty much everything you see."

Beyond the demands of pushing the boundaries of stagecraft to their extremes, working on Harry Potter And The Cursed Child also held another kind of responsibility, Banakis says. "Stepping into the process of designing this world, knowing how beloved the books are and the scale of the fandom surrounding Harry Potter, we really all felt like we had a duty to not spoil people’s love of this world, and the image of that world that they bring with them to the theatre. Our challenge was to expand upon that fondness, and expand upon it in fresh ways so that the show didn’t betray any of the wonderful experiences people have of the books or the films.

"We didn’t want to compete with anything from the films or the books. Instead, we've created an experience capable of standing on its own, capable of having its own kind of enchantment."

First published 28 Dec 2018, for The Music.