At the edge of the Princess Theatre stage, in large gold letters, are two words that only the actors can see.
Of course, for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, they’re in Latin: “Inlustret Lumine” – let the light shine.
The Cursed Child has been lighting up the stage since early 2019, give or take a Melbourne lockdown or six, and the December 14 matinee will mark 1000 performances – a rare feat for theatre in Australia.
It’s even more impressive considering the cut-down version of the show runs three and a half hours – the original two-parter ran to more than five.
Company Manager Matt Schubach has worked on the Melbourne production since its early days and admits when it finally wraps, he may find himself wishing for a time-turner.
“It’ll be very strange not to live a life without Harry Potter … It’s been a career highlight to just be on this show,” he told AAP.
The theatrical sequel to J.K. Rowling’s seven-book Harry Potter series has a plot that moves as fast as the Hogwarts Express, as Harry Potter’s youngest son Albus and his fellow Slytherin Scorpius Malfoy try to right the wrongs of the past and the original boy wizard discovers that confronting Voldemort was probably easier than being a parent.
The 168-year-old Princess Theatre underwent a $6.5 million renovation for the show, which won’t be touring to other capitals – stage manager Rebecca Rees believes it would be tough to stage in any other venue in Australia.
Rees explained while most productions stop at the proscenium arch – the magical frame that divides performers from their audience – the entire theatre was transformed for the Cursed Child.
In the auditorium, Rees points out dragon sconces, Hogwarts carpet and stained glass.
Above, an enormous chandelier was taken down to make a hatch for Dementors – foul, wraith-like creatures that devour human happiness – to menace the audience.
But there are many alterations theatregoers would never notice. For one, the walls have been painted in Raven’s Plume, a specially-mixed shade of grey-blue used in the half dozen Potter productions playing around the world.
And below the stage, excavations went down to the bedrock two storeys below street level for steel and concrete works to take the weight of a three-and-a-half tonne pool, representing the murky waters of the Great Lake beyond Hogwarts Castle.
Schubach and Rees proudly show off how every centimetre of space is used behind the scenes. There are emergency wands strapped to the walls using lengths of black elastic and custom-made shelves crammed with suitcases for the witches and wizards at King’s Cross Station.
Of Rees’ many Cursed Child tales one, in particular, illuminates how the peculiarities of the old theatre required some serious muggle-style engineering.
In act one, Albus and Scorpius confront a witch on top of the Hogwarts Express, before leaping from the speeding train – a piece of set measuring just under seven metres long that disappears stage right.
On opening night, the vanishing of the Hogwarts Express prompted gasps and applause from a seasoned audience of industry figures, who knew the wings on that side were a mere two metres wide.
It apparently disappeared into nowhere – but how? It wasn’t an Invisibility Charm, but a prop designed to instantly break into three parts to be spirited away.
Moving the train, giant staircases and various other massive pieces of the set has never gone badly wrong, and that’s down to meticulous crew training and perfect timing on the night – every night.
“It’s so choreographed, if you stand in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could get collected by something coming off at high speed,” Rees said.
J.K. Rowling herself has asked audiences to “keep the secrets” of the play and its published script, and some things must remain under wraps, such as whether the Dementors swooping above the audience are puppets, actors, or even robots.
But as Rees makes her way downstairs, she promises to reveal some mysteries from below the stage.
She points out gas lines to fire up the onstage pyrotechnics of wizard duels, pipes for the smoke on platform nine-and-three-quarters and scuba gear, for diving in Hogwarts Lake at the fateful Triwizard Tournament.
With the pool just metres from the front row, it’s possible to hear the audience marvelling at the magical lake and their genuine response to a surprise Dementor attack.
“It really is a lot of fun, it never gets old,” Rees said.
The actors get scuba training, and Scorpius does a quick change before taking a dip – into a costume made of wetsuit material that floats and keeps him warm.
It’s just one of the thousands of costumes in the show, even down to the right socks and underwear.
“You’ve then got the wigs on top of that, human hair wigs that have been hand-knotted and custom made to fit each performer’s head,” Schubach said.
Maintaining the specially-made costumes and wigs for the three actors playing each character is a full-time job for five makeup and costume staff.
They work out of a cramped room in the basement, where dozens of wigs are stored on shelves alongside three latex Voldemort masks, a different one moulded to fit each of the actors playing the Dark Lord.
They look so omi…