Taking Harry Potter in a New Direction
One of the hot topics in the theatre world this week has been the cast announcement of the latest Harry Potter work heading towards the West End stage, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Any casting of this show that didn’t feature Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint would cause much discussion because these three actors have taken audiences through the Potter journey over a number of years. But not many people were expecting this innovative casting decision . . .
Hermione is described in the book as a girl with brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. Emma Watson hit the big time bringing this character to life and has gone on to become one of the most popular and in demand actors making the rounds at the moment and with a live action musical adaptation of Beauty and the Beast in the works. But the casting for the West End play went another direction. They cast acclaimed British actress Noma Dumezweni, of South African heritage, in the role.
Nowhere in the literary series is Hermione’s race mentioned. However, while this casting did bring about some disappointing criticisms, the reception on the whole has been incredibly positive towards a new take on the material.
So why did the creative team make this decision?
Many shows at the moment are using ethnicity to make shows more creatively rich and offer different insights into the same source material. Hamilton is leading the way at the moment with a show that follows the founding fathers of America who are played by actors from a multitude of ethnicities. In fact, the only Caucasian actor – Jonathan Groff – is playing King George. The rest of the performers coming from a range of different backgrounds are used to symbolise that the original founding fathers, while they were white, were actually a bunch of immigrants themselves. And this latest Harry Potter instalment isn’t that different.
The wizarding world is highly determined by status. Everyone from the offspring of wealthy and prestigious families to the children of two non-wizards is given a hierarchical place in the world. Hermione comes from the latter. And casting a black actress as a girl from a non-magical background who becomes an activist for those supressed by society and is ultimately treated as less privileged by the upper classes adds a new take and a different meaning to this previously investigated material.
That is a great creative reason to explore this innovative casting. But there is also a marketing reason.
Firstly, it makes the show different from the movies. There is a reason to go and see this show because you will experience a different interpretation for one of the book’s leading characters which is interesting in its own right.
Secondly, audiences search for characters and shows that resonate with them. In The Heights brought the Dominican-American neighbourhood to the stage and opened up theatre for this new audience because it told a story with relevance. A story that they could relate to. Even though it didn’t do very well, the intention was the same behind the Tupac Shakur musical which opened last year and brought rap into the traditional theatre zone, a musical artform that carries much more resonance with non-traditional theatre audiences than typical musical theatre. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will have the same effect providing characters which resonate with a much wider segment of the population. Not only due to their ethnicity but also due to the new stories that the director is able to tell with this great casting decision!