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Classical Receptions In Late Twentieth Century Drama And Poetry In English



In this essay, I will discuss the importance of set and costume design in contemporary productions of Greek drama and will demonstrate the fundamental importance of design to any given production, both within the creative process and in performance. I draw on examples offered by contemporary set and costume designers and I try to categorise and explain their decisions wherever possible. Of necessity, I have limited my choice of productions, designers and directors to a set of (around) a dozen examples; all of these can be found catalogued in the database. It is hoped that the reader will be able to apply the basic ideas expounded here to a fuller range of productions than those alluded to in the text.

Set and costume design is just one area of the theatre’s ‘visual systems’ that affects the creation and reception of a play. Sets and costumes are created within a specific theatrical space for a specific period of performance. The notion of theatrical space is, of course, very important in the understanding of set and costume design.


There are two major design components that make up the visual semiotics, or design, of any performance: set and costume. These design elements reflect the themes and mood, style and emotions of a play, as well as indicating the historical or geographical context of the production. The design of a play can be of fundamental importance to its conceptualization by a director or, conversely, the director’s initial conception of a play can force the design (or the designer) to work in a particular way. In both cases, the design is open to another level of reception as it subsequently acts as a communicator to the audience. The audience reception of the design can be an important factor in a director’s choice of the visual elements of a production, as the experience of theatre director Richard Foreman, for example, suggests: “Often, I’ve developed the visual aspect of the performance to a point where it becomes the major emotional element affecting the audience.”

Design is closely allied with the discipline of semiology – the science of reading signs – which is, according to Foucault: “the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to distinguish the location of the signs, to define what constitutes them as signs and to know how and by what laws, they are linked.”

In other words, semiology (in a theatrical context) is concerned with the way in which meaning is developed and conveyed from the time a director (assuming that it is the director who makes the initial decision to stage a particular play) first reads a play to the moment when it is interpreted (in various ways) by the audience. Semiology cannot concentrate simply on one system of signs (like that which, say, governs the set or the costumes) because it needs to identify a body of signs making up a Gestalt that signifies a whole. Design elements (like set and costume but also lights and props) need to be read together and incorporated into the bigger picture of theatrical space, audience layout, acting style, music, poster imagery and so on.

A stage design properly conceived and executed should express the core meaning of the production. Set and costume designs are not just a collection of images; they are the expression of mood, the presence that enhances and comments on the performance. Design creates dramatic action, causes tension in a visual form; it is a signifier of performance meaning. Design is an integral part of the whole production process; it is disheartening to see designs, which lack coherence and are given a poor second place in any production.

This is not to say that costumes and set design has to be elaborate or expensive. Some performances are staged without set or created environment and while this may be due to budgetary considerations and/or technical availability, sometimes it is a conscious decision on the part of the designer and/or the director. A simple design can be tremendously effective as long as there is strict unity between the design and other aspects of the production. The set and costume designs (by Christopher Barreca and Chigeru Yaji) for Mark Ruker’s production of Birds (1998), for example, were extremely simple but wonderfully effective, using masses of while balloons to create the clouds in Cloudcuckooland and everyday household objects to conjure up a wide variety of plumage for the bird chorus (DB ref. no. 1006).

When all the visual elements combine, a sense of design is born and the full impact of the theatre experience can be interpreted (in various ways) by the audience. In this essay, the focus of attention will be drawn towards the set and costume designs of a series of productions but where they become crucially important to the overall design, allusion will be made to lighting and properties too.


In 1980, in a rare article on the importance of stage design to the success of a production, a popular Sunday newspaper magazine noted: ‘The theatre designer is a comparatively unsung hero in British cultural life.’

While it is true that there are few theatre design superstars (there are, of course exceptions like Edward Gordon Craig, Jocelyn Herbert, John Napier, Theoni V Aldridge and Maria Bjornson) the role of the designer within the theatre business is one that commands (for the most part) enormous authority and prestige.

Much of the designer’s authority stems from the fact that he or she must share in a production’s creative process with the director, supporting, adjusting, augmenting or vetoing his/her creative decisions. The designer may be the first person to visualise the ‘look’ of a production, or may be called upon to help realize the director’s initial vision; ideally, the two people will work together in mutual artistic harmony to create a single vision. Of course, the director always has the final decision over the production design; t is the director, after all, who has to work within the designated theatre space and within the parameters of the design decisions.

The close partnership that is expected to develop between the director and the designer frequently results in the formation of close working relationships that continue over many years. The director John Barton worked closely with designer John Napier for many years, while Peter Hall and indeed, Tony Harrison, established an excellent working method with designer Jocelyn Herbert. While some directors prefer to design productions themselves, it is far more usual to find a director collaborating with a designer, or even with a team of designers.


Set designers orchestrate visual elements, such as line, form, colour, mass and balance. Ideally, the set should always help the performers by providing them with an appropriate background for creating mood and atmosphere and provide them with a workable apparatus. The role of the set as an apparatus for the performers’ physicality was fundamental to Actors of Dionysus’ production of Bacchae (DB ref. 2534), in which the steel scaffolding set acted as a climbing frame for the energetic clambering’s of Dionysus and his Maenads.

A good set design should fit the theatrical space to its best advantage and complement the costumes and the lighting, although a set design might also be crafted in such a way as to provide a deliberate contrast to the costumes. The set design should challenge or endorse the visual aesthetics of the audience, encourage creativity blocking and picturisation on the part of the director and the cast and serve the needs of the script. All in all, the set design must reflect the artistic vision of the production.

Therefore, the set designer (with the director) has to consider whether the set should be a naturalistic, realistic or authentic recreation of a particular location (imaginary or otherwise), like a temple, palace forecourt, or seashore, or whether it should be a more abstract (or even surreal) interpretation of the same location. There is also a possibility that the designer might employ both naturalistic and abstract elements for the design, this might include the incorporation of the architectural elements of the theatre space itself. Each of these choices will affect the audience’s perception of the production and the performer’s use of space. These decisions have to be decided early, as any later mistakes could prove costly, both in terms of time and finance.

An example of the merging of abstract, naturalistic and architecturally imposed design elements can be found in the Living Pictures Productions’ staging of Euripides’s Andromache (DB ref. no. 2535). The action of the play was set on a beach and used a sand-strewn floor cloth to emphasise the fact.

This gave a naturalistic feel to the stage floor, which was in contrast to the shrine of the goddess Thetis, which had an abstract and minimalist beauty, created as it was from a simple raised rostrum, white plaster herm of the goddess and one overhanging bow of a tree, which provided a sense of being outdoors and allowed the lighting to create an interesting play of shadows on the stage floor. The performers played out the drama against the back wall of the theatre, which was left undecorated save for painted gold lines on a set of two double doors, which served as grand entranceways into the ‘palace’ beyond.

In the initial design stages, certain important decisions have to be made by the designer and director. They need to decide whether the set should be coloured or monotone and if coloured, whether there should be a limited colour palette. The designer needs to decide about the interplay of light and dark on the stage and question the appropriateness of using, say, large bright open spaces and dark secluded areas within the set. Moreover, the designer and director need to decide whether the stage will be a flat surface or levelled with the use of rostra or scaffolding to add height and visual variety to the stage picture.

The set establishes the frame of action on stage, using pictorial, plastic, architectural or other means and the set can communicate a variety of meanings, moods and interpretations; chief among these is a sense of the historical period in which the production is located. More often than not these days, however, in the staging of a Greek play, the historical period is unspecified: David Leveaux’s Electra (DB ref. no. 1005), for example, was described by theatre critic Peter Marks thus: “designed by John Engels to exist in some fantastic limbo between the classical and contemporary worlds – the set encompasses fragments of Greek columns and broken pieces of modern furniture.” But sometimes a more precise historical period is suggested: Katie Mitchell’s Oresteia (DB ref. 1111 & 1112) had the look of 1940’s Eastern Europe, The Actors of Dionysus set their Antigone (1998) in the Late Medieval/Early Renaissance era (DB ref. no. 282) and the Bloomsbury Theatre’s 1999 Lysistrata was set in 1920’s high-society (DB ref. no. 1049), while Toph Marshall’s Canadian production of Helen was rooted in the 1930s (DB ref. no. 266). Other productions are even more exact: Michael Ewans’ 1997 Antigone was specifically set in Bosnia in 1994 (DB. Ref. no. 829). It is very rare, however, to find a production of a Greek play that specifically sets it in the time of its original composition and performance.

The set also informs the audience of the geographical location of the play (in the city or town, in Sparta or Susa, etc.). Greek tragedy and comedy usually locate the action in a specific place; this may or may not be observed in modern productions.

Actors of Dionysus’s production of Oedipus the King went as far as placing two large tapestry maps on the stage floor from which the audience was able to pinpoint the locations of the play – Thebes, Corinth and Delphi (DB ref. no. 934). Peter Seller’s’ The Persians of 1993 clearly established the setting in Gulf War Iraq (DB ref. no. 208). As Benedict Nightingale of The Times noted: “Don’t be fooled by the occasional references to conquering Athenians or by the characters’ classical names. Instead, listen to the smart bombs as the fizz overhead …. The bare Royal Lyceum stage is, it seems, Baghdad during the Gulf War.”

The set might refer to an exact place or location (such as a palace, a woodland, or a seashore). Two productions of Euripides’s Ion are particularly noteworthy for the detailed reconstruction of the ancient sacred precinct of Delphi. The first, which was originally produced in Cambridge in 1994 and then toured in Britain and Greece under the direction of Nick Philippou, was designed by Moggie Douglas who cleverly created a huge white marble pediment of the temple of Apollo, which was crowded with mythological scenes of bending and falling human figures interspersed among chariot horses (DB ref. no. 144). The second (big [ger] budget) production directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) also in 1994 by Nicholas Wright had a set which was described as: “an impressive piece of archaeology, a literalisation of Euripides’ text, beautiful but not so overwhelming that the actors would get lost against it.” The set consisted of, “reliefs which looked like museum casts … an altar, Mycenaean style, hammered gold foil over carved wooden reliefs, Gorgons prominent among them, raised on a stepped dais before a not-quite doorway in the centre of the temple. (DB ref. no. 143).

The set design can also give an indication of the time of day although this, of course, was generally of little importance to the ancient Greek dramatists who seem to have observed the constraints of playing in the open air during the hours of daylight. Nevertheless, modern directors and designers often find an appropriate temporal location for their settings. A 1996 production of modern-dress Lysistrata (designed and directed by Paul Atkins) set the action during the course of a day (DB re. no. 997). Likewise, the seasons of the year are rarely specified in the ancient texts, nor in their modern realizations. However, Actors of Dionysus’ production (2000) of Grave Gifts (DB ref. no. 1113) set the action in a bitterly cold winter landscape, while Katie Mitchell’s Oresteia seemed to progress from summer to winter.

The set design can, with the aid of lighting, also hint at weather conditions: while rumbling thunder is a common feature of modern tragic productions, few are explicit about weather conditions in the stage design itself. In Silviu Purcarete’s remarkable 1998 Agamemnon (DB ref. no. 941), however, the large double doors within the side walls of the ‘palace’ set were used to good effect as they periodically slammed open and closed with the force of a torrential storm raging outside the palace.

Above and beyond providing the audience with an indication of the time and location of the play, the set must create the mood and atmosphere for the production. The mood can sometimes be emphasized by the emblematic use of scenic elements or a particular design facet, which is singled out to stand as a hallmark for the production. For Purcarete, for example, the emphasis was put on the bright blue cyclorama that provided a background to his stark Agamemnon set. In front of the cyclorama, perched in line on top of the ‘palace’ roof, were the silhouettes of six black vultures, an evocative image for the precarious, decaying state of Argos. The silhouetted birds of prey provided a visual key into the production as the audience took its seats; they also became the production’s most enduring image. Similarly, few spectators of Ninagawa’s Medea at the Edinburgh Festival in 1986 will forget the visual impact of Medea’s dragon-led fiery chariot appearing in the night sky above the neoclassical pediment of the open-air stage building. In this one colourful image, Ninagawa emphasized both Medea’s familial association with the sun god and his own Oriental background.

The designer must ensure that the set and other design elements of the mis-en-scene either merge together to form a well-conceived unity, or if desired, that they diversify and clash, bringing deliberate discord. The purposeful correlation of the design elements of a production means that all the theatrical visual systems (set, costumes, lights, props, poster and programme design) work in harmony; if a production, like David Leveaux’s Electra, is set in Bosnia in 1994 (DB ref. no. 829), then all the design factors must work together to convince the audience that they are witnessing a sequence of events happening in a particular time and place. It is not appropriate for a character to appear in ancient Greek costume, unless the director and/or designer want to emphasize some discrepancy or correlation between, say, past and present events. Katie Mitchell’s Oresteia, for example, is a very good instance of the effective use of integrated design. Pseudo-1940s Eastern Europe was reflected in set details, costumes, props, music and dance, while high-tech digital gadgetry, like camcorders and microphones and less imposing technical gadgetry like hand-held cassette recorders and old typewriters, were merged together to create a unique visual system. Fused together, these seemingly disparate elements created a unified whole which was also reflected in the non-production aspects of the work, the poster and the programme designs. The main image for the programme and the poster showed a young girl’s dress, in 1940s style, trampled into the wet sand of a shoreline. In the distance there lay a single little shoe. The image is meant to focus the spectator’s mind on the tragedy of the young Iphigeneia and the legitimacy of her sacrifice is questioned by the photographs scattered throughout the programme, where more items of her clothing are tagged and bagged like evidence at a murder trial. The potency of the imagery is endorsed within the production itself, where the bloody carpet that was spread on the ground for Agamemnon’s hubristic entry into his palace was actually formed from dozens of little girls’ blood-soaked dresses.

Sometimes, however, deliberate discord within the design elements can amplify or confuse the mood or atmosphere of the production. Mnouchkine and her design team interspersed

Some subtle but significant aspects of visual conflict in the production of Les Atrides (1990-1992, DB ref. no. 152). In Eumenides, for example, the bullring-like structure of the set and Nathalie Thomas’s Oriental kimono-like costumes for the three Furies were off against contemporary footwear – battered trainers and pumps. The footwear detail was small but deliberate and was meant to draw out the shared commonalities across time periods and cultures.


It would appear that a healthy trend has shaped up since the early 1960s wherein set design has been freed of its imitative (or representational) role and has become an integral contributor to the performance as a whole. The design of Greek tragedy in particular is certainly responding to the general trend of innovative theatrical design. Broadly speaking, the typographic design elements of contemporary Greek drama productions can be classed as:

  • Modern dress
  • Modern dress war-zone
  • Modern dress, Eastern European (particularly popular in the late 1990s).
  • A nebulous thing called “Timeless’ which is often an amalgamation of styles.

This ‘look’ can be achieved through the thoughtless and imprecise amalgamation of styles. Alternatively, of course, “Timelessness’ can be a carefully created design statement which. Through an amalgamation of styles emphasizes commonalities or, conversely, plays-up disjunction.

  • A period-specific production
  • Oriental, Eastern
  • ‘The Greek past’, ie. a production where actors wear ancient Greek style costumes and perform on Greek-inspired architectural settings but where they do not use authentic Greek stage design conventions like masks, the orchestra, skene, etc.
  • ‘The Greek past’ with authentic Greek production details, eg. Masks, ekkyklema, skene, the crane, etc.

Of course, not all productions necessarily sit comfortable in one or any of those categories. Some productions may share different design conventions or merge elements during the course of the performance, as we have noted with Mnouchkine’s Eumenides.


Costumes form a unique sign system of especial complexity since they are decoded by the audience on a number of simultaneous levels: they are put into action by the performers who impose gestures and movement on them, while at the same time they are three-dimensional aspects of art and must be read in the wider context of space, set and lighting. The contextualisation of all the aspects of design can radically alter how a costume is used and read. When a white costume is lit by a red light, for example, then it becomes red; when a black robe is worn against a black background, the wearer all but disappears.

Besides these complexities, costume designers have an additional responsibility because costumes do not simply form part of the overall visual system but they also have to reflect the status and individuality of different characters. The costume designer and the director must conceptualise not just the look of each individual costume but also take special notice of how the collective costumes work as visual signifiers in each changing moment of the performance. In Living Theatre Productions’ Andromache, for example, the predominant colours for the costumes were shades of red, orange, brown and gold. The colours gave a unity to the chorus and to several of the main protagonists. The costumes for the characters of Andromache and Hermione, however, were allowed to stand apart: the Spartan Hermione was dressed in several layers of brightly coloured purple, blue and green silks to emphasize her wealth and vanity, while the Trojan Andromache, played by a black actress, was dressed in a simple clack sleeveless gown. Not only did the blackness of her costume provide a sharp simplicity to Hermione’s ostentatious Orientalist costume but it also marked her out as a loner who was alien to her red-orange-gold-brown surroundings. Andromache’s black skin and black costume emphasized her foreignness.

To begin the costuming process, the director has to determine the importance of costumes in the hierarchy of visual systems within a given production: how much weight and significance will the costumes carry? The director might decide to dress all the characters in basic black costumes if the desire is to let the script’s words and actors’ physicality carry forward the characterizations and the plot; alternatively, a director can rely heavily on costumes to provide a layered series of signifiers. When Brook wanted to emphasise the poetry and language of his production of Seneca’s Oedipus at the Old Vic, he dressed his cast in black jumpers and trousers and simple black dresses (DB 190). At the other end of the scale is Monouchkine’s Les Atrides in which the detailed costumes added something very special to the production’s visualization. The integral importance of costumes in a production is very much at the root of Le Theatre du Soleil’s design and production theory, as Monouchkine propounds to her actors: “Finish your costumes well. They can be your friends. They are your enemies if they are badly made, if they don’t hold together.” It is generally noted that Monouchkine has a special taste for costumes. She likes them to be lively, rich, exact, finished.

The director and costume designer must determine which of the following kinds of information they want to communicate to the audience through the costumes (many concerns, it can be demonstrated, are shared by the set designer too.)

Like the set, costume can locate the historical period in which the director has opted to place the play. Interestingly, directors and costume designers seem increasingly disinclined to place their productions in the ancient Greek world; commenting on the production process of Les Atrides, Monouchkine maintains that: “I didn’t want to consult documents on ancient Greece because I was afraid of slipping into the old clichés of Greek vases, the togas (sic), the draping.

Jocelyn Herbert recollects that for the National Theatre production of the Oresteia: “Peter (Hall) wanted the cast to wear clothes based on Greek costumes but which didn’t look too Greek.”

For Barton’s The Greeks, Napier describes his costumes as: “starting off as in indefinitely Homeric but became curiously modern as the cycle progresses. That is not affection, it id what the plays seem to dictate. …Pylades …looks like the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat …I see Orestes, Electra and Pylades almost as the Baader Meinhof gang when, sentenced to death, they come storming into the palace of Mycenae. ‘Andromache’ … is very Monty Python … So where appropriate, the costumes go wacky, with lots of cocktail skirts.”

Costumes also stress the geographic locations of the play. Any kind of regional costume, for example, can indicate that a character originates from a location outside the setting of the main action. In Mitchell’s ‘Daughters of Darkness’ (the second half of the RNT’s Oresteia), Orestes and Pylades dressed in clichéd Sicilian-type gangster suits (complete with tick drooping mustachios) to express their (supposed) Phokian nationality. Lampito, the Spartan, is frequently dressed in a different (usually somewhat ‘butch’) costume from her Athenian sisters in Aristophanes’s Lysistrata.

One of the chief functions of the costume is to reflect a character’s personality; this can either be reflected in a naturalistic approach to an individual character’s taste in dress, or be a more symbolic reflection of character. An Oxford Playhouse production of Iphigenia at Aulis, for example, dressed the young princess in a short white cotton dress and delicate white veil, which stressed her marriageability and her innocence (it reminded one both of a wedding dress and a young girl’s confirmation dress). Her mother, Clytemnestra was costumed like a grand operative diva in a green satin gown (DB ref. no. 966). Actors of Dionysus’ Grave Gifts stereotyped Clytemnestra’s personality by dressing her in a skimpy, sexy red velveteen dress that revealed ample amounts of flesh; in contrast, the Clymemnestra of Mitchell’s Oresteia was elegantly but modestly (not to say ironically) dressed in a late 1940’s Dior-style white summer dress printed with bright red poppies. A picture of feminine respectability, the costume was intended to conceal the queen’s ambitious personality and passionate, man-like, ruthless drive. In Barton’s The Greeks the vein, self-centred Helen was dressed for her Egyptian sojourn in nothing more than a bright yellow towel, suntan lotion and a pair of sunglasses. This simplest kind of ‘costume’ eloquently conveyed Helen’s narcissism and indolence and placed the story squarely in the present day. Helen’s towel, sun-cream and shades also highlighted her socio-economic status. Poverty and wealth, or feigned poverty and wealth, can be effectively captured in costume. Accessories, like jewellery, makeup and hairstyles sometimes make all the difference.

A costume designer should also attempt to convey any shifting emotions of the character: in Chloe Productions’ Persians, for example, Atossa was first costumed in a bright, ornate robe which she late set aside in favour of mourning black as news of the Persian defeat reached Susa (DB ref. no. 909).

Costumes also give information about the season of the year and the weather conditions in which the play is set and help indicate the time of day. Such details can be expressed through the designer’s choice of weight, decoration and cut of the fabric and the layers of clothing worn by a character. Katie Mitchell’s The Home Guard had a summer feel about if – a garden-party type of dress – set off with white gloves and white stiletto shoes. Paul Atkins’ Lysistrata, as noted above, set the action during the course of a day: beginning early in the morning, the Athenian women appeared on stage, appropriately enough, in pyjamas; by the ‘afternoon’ they were in skimpy summer frocks but towards the close of the play, they reappeared in slinky evening dresses. The transitions in time were echoed in the lighting design too.

Costume should also convey a character’s profession or occupation. Aristophanes’ sausage-seller should look conspicuously different from a military general or an effete poet. Costume should also help both actor and audience by alluding to a character’s age: A character like Iphigeneia should look noticeable younger than her mother Clymemnestra and this can be achieved through a combination of costume and make-up.

Costume can also emphasise the dramatic polarity or similarities of femininity and masculinity. The gendered aspects of a production can be effectively enhanced by costume: Theatre Babel’s Electra (2000), for example, depicted the Argive princess in a heavy greatcoat and army boots (an image utilized in many contemporary productions of the Electra story (DB id no. 2521). It is a look which stresses Electra’s removal from the normal ‘gendered’ constructions of society. She is an unmarried virgin who, through her choice of masculine military clothing clearly has no aspirations to marry. The same production saw her sister dressed in a young girl’s frock, plastic jewellery, sandals and ankle socks. This emphasised Chrysosthemis’s dilemma: she is a young woman reaching sexual maturity but unnaturally forced to lead the life of a virgin schoolgirl until he elder sister marries. To create this impasse, the costume designer cleverly dressed the mature actress in clothing far too young for her character.

Above and beyond the practical considerations of depicting character and helping create a time and a place, costume also augments pageantry and spectacle. Monouchkine has skilfully demonstrated this important and invigorating aspect of modern performance and one that clearly has direct links with the original productions of tragedy in Athens where, we know, spectacle was of great importance.

After setting on a style and a purpose for the costumes, the designer must explore fabric choices for each costume, as well as, for the production as a whole. Different sorts of fabrics serve as signifiers for different states: coarse fabrics are suitable to express poverty and barbarism; shiny and smooth fabrics point to wealth, royalty or sexiness. Other costume choices have to be made, involving details, such as headdresses, wigs, jewellery and make-up. All of these important elements have to be drawn together harmoniously for the costume to work and have dramatic effect.

An important consideration for the costuming of Greek drama is whether or not to employ masks as part of the costume. For many people, masks are synonymous with Greek drama, although in actuality, there are very few modern productions that utilize this ancient aspect of costume. An exception is made by Chloe Productions, a London based theatre company specialising in Greek drama and theatre-in-education, who routinely opt to use masks. The company tends to employ half-masks, as opposed to full-face masks, although the masks themselves usually incorporate woollen wigs, which make for some elaborate ancient hairstyles and complement the (mainly) ancient style costumes worn by the performers (see Prometheus DB id no. 949).

Peter Hall’s Oresteia famously used full-face masks for all of its cast members (in both speaking and silent roles). Designed by Jocelyn Herbert, the creation of the masks occurred over a protracted time period. She recalls: “to start with, we made some abstract and some more real and the actors were given the to try. We discovered that we could make shapes which looked good in clay but by the time we’d cast them and made moulds and then the masks themselves, they sometimes didn’t work at all . . .we tried various materials and we would have loved to have used leather but it would have taken too long to make as many masks as were needed . . . and in the end, we used four layers of muslin so the masks were light and porous. The National made the hair, which was usually black or dyed silk or cotton cord except for the Furies, for which we used dyed string . . . one of the problems was that each character had to have an open mouth and that is such an expressive feature. . . the masks for the old men of Argos were originally going to be more abstract, using a wonderful African mask as a base but I realized that that wouldn’t work and that they needed to be more naturalistic . . . if you have a chorus of old men, even if they are not speaking all at the same lines, they are in effect saying the same thing; the essence of their characters is that they are old . . .if I had sixteen different male masks, it would have been very confusing but by making them similar, I could enhance the telling of the story by strengthening the feeling of age . . .somehow, although the Old Men of Argos were all in the same mask, they each looked slightly different.”

The full-face masks, as used in the Greek theatre, force the actor to disregard his own visage and to concentrate his movements upon his body; there is no need for facial movement behind the mask; instead that energy is redirected to other parts of the body. Full masks are also uitilsed in some forms of Oriental theatre (like Noh and Balinese and Thai dance-drama) but it is predominantly a make-up ‘mask’ that is worn by the Oriental performer; in addition to Kathakali, Japanese Kabuki and the Peking Opera use elaborate make-up masks. Monouchkine has used Japanese Noh masks in her Shakespeare Cycle but she also displays a dependency on Oriental-style make-up. Her production of Les Atrides avoided the use of masks, despite their appropriateness for an Orientalist production; instead she opted for heavy Kathakali-style make-up. Like Greek masks, Kathakali make-up us highly conventional and symbolic; the audience knows that, say, a character in vivid green make-up is good and heroic, just as it knows that a type in black make-up is evil and destructive. Although Monouchkine rejects the idea that these

Kathakali-inspired creations were based on Greek masks (‘violent make-up’ is how she describes them), she recognized that there were distinct mask-elements in this formalized make-up. An interview in a 1933 publication entitled Le Corps en jeu has her stating that: “The actors were helped by make-up/masks: I insisted on them being masked but I did not want opaque masks that would have concealed their faces. From the first day of rehearsals, they practiced Kathakali make-up, which both amplifies their expressions and supports their performance. It is well known that all Theatre du Soleil actors have learnt to work with masks.


Costumes play an important part in contemporary staging of Greek drama, becoming the ‘actor’s second skin’ that Tairov spoke of during the opening decades of the twentieth century. Costume in contemporary theatre is a paradox – it has multiple functions and goes beyond mimetism and signalling. A ‘good’ costume reinterprets the entire performance through its shifts in meaning. As a production shifts and changes and develops throughout the course of its run, so the use of costumes develops too. The audience of Mitchell’s Phoenician Women (1955) at Stratford’s Other Place (DB id no. 211) saw a different set of costumes to those subsequently seen by audiences at London’s Pit. During its transfer period and re-rehearsal, Mitchell changed the look of the production in several subtle ways, which went (apparently) unnoticed by the critics. The production file in the RSC archives testifies to the design changes: written in longhand, the Stage Manager’s notes for the revival rehearsal on 3rd June 1996 reads:

WARDROBE. When breakdown coats?

  1. There will be a new coat for everyone, each one being slightly different in colour or cut.
  2. Possible earrings or toe-rings
  3. All costumes need to look sea-stained
  4. The Theban costumes will be made of silk
  5. ETOCLES’ (sic) (Sean Murray) armour will now be metal (from Henry VI)
  6. Creon’s costume will be less military with a swirly coat and no green waistband. The coat (or double) will be used to wrap Menoceus’ (sic) body
  7. Teiesias’ (sic) costume will be more ragged with little feathers sewn on a smaller gold crown
  8. Mante (Lise Stevenson) will have a poorer looking veil


Cut body-painting

  1. Everyone’s hair will now be tied back
  2. Everyone generally will look paler and ill-looking
  3. The 2 messengers (Sean Murray & Dermot Kerrigan) need to be much muddier

For 4th June, the rehearsal notes read:


  1. Nose-rings are to be tried in addition to toe-rings (but not earrings).


  1. The tattoos may be cut
  2. Everyone (except Lucy Whybrow) should have dust/sea salt in their hair


The visual sign systems used by contemporary directors of ancient Greek drama produce a wide range of meanings. Choices such as whether or not to use simple or elaborate scenery and costumes, dark or bright colours, a large or small theatre space, a lit or unlit audience, affect the meanings of the productions and audience reception. Set and costumes are individual visual elements that come together to create a ‘design’. The director’s task is to orchestrate the separate stands of the visual system into one harmonious whole and to gel it with other performance aspects, such as acting, music and dance. Audiences are then asked to receive, read and understand the visual dimension of the performance as a key language component if the theatrical discourse.

Contemporary British Stage Design: Three Representative Scenographers

Concurrent with the renaissance in English play writing during the last quarter century has been a comparable creative surge in English staging, which had long rested an tasteful, predictable mise-en-scenes of cup and saucer drawing room comedy and melodrama, or on the equally unimaginative, albeit often elegant, mounting of poetic drama, above all of Shakespeare.

It was almost as if the new drama, whether of angry young men or the absurd, sparked a similar breakthrough in explorations of stage space and movement, colour, texture, and mass, rhythm and orchestration.  English acting has perennially been held in high esteem, but now the work of many directors and scenographers also came to be recognized as being of equal worth.  The Royal Shakespeare Company, the Old Vic and its offspring the National Theatre, and the English Stage Company all began to mount productions that recalled many of the prophetic vision of that earlier English man of Theatre, Edward Gordon Craig, who celebrated the Artist of the Theatre over both playwright and actor.  The English theatre is probably too deeply rooted in its homage to playwright and actor ever so go as far as Craig would have liked in scrapping the literary text and the star performer, but during the past two decades increasing international attention has been paid to directors such as Joan Littlewood, Peter Brook, Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn, John Barton, Terry Hands, John Dexter and William Gaskill.  Less celebrated but of comparable significance has been the remarkable achievement of English scenographers during the same period, as if they had risen to the challenges and opportunities provided by the new drama and the new directors.  The English have dominated the most recent major international scenographic exhibitions (including top prizes at the Prague Quadrennials of 1976 and 1979), as well as the most recent Broadway seasons:  the last two winners of Tony awards for design were both English (John Bury in 1980 and John Napier in 1981).  Far more than skilled scene painters or elegant interior decorators, the contemporary English scenographer have been making a powerful contribution to the new English Theatre, the strength of which has been precisely its combined creativity of author, actor, director, and scenographer.

There are at least ten currently practicing, established, distinctive English scenographers of international calibre.  Rather than attempt an overall survey of them I should like to present a more detailed account of three who are representative of the whole with respect to the differences in their ages, backgrounds, stylistic inclinations, and work habits: Jocelyn Herbert, Ralph Koltai, and John Napier, listed here in order of descending age, according to which I shall also consider their work.

Before considering the ways in which they differ, notice should be taken of certain characteristics they have in common.  Although all three attended art schools and had formal sturdy in theatre design, they have shied away from conventional, standardized modes of scene design and stage decor.  All three have worked in both small studio theatre’s and large, established houses, and in opera as well as the dramatic theatre. Moreover, all three have worked at one time or another for the three most famous English Theatre organizations, The Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, and the English Stage Company, in addition to having designed abroad.  Like most English scenographers the design costumes as well as scenery, and they also share a keen interest in modifying the centuries old spatial relationships of stage and audience and in the use of innovative techniques and unconventional materials in staging.

Yet, like their other colleagues, each has his or her distinctive approach to scenography.  Although all three have practiced a variety of styles on a broad spectrum of plays and operas, each has acquired a certain primary identity.  Jocelyn Herbert (born 1917) has generally leaned toward restrained, austere scenography often associated with the realistically based work of The royal Court Theatre of the English Stage company.. Ralph Koltai (born 1924) has practiced a more frankly art oriented scenography that has deliberately made its presence felt as an excessive force, perhaps most fully in opera. John Napier (born 1944) has consistently experimented with ways of breaking and reshaping customary boundaries between performers and spectators, and with unconventional assemblages of structures and materials on stage.  Each has also been associated with broader tendencies.  A fellow scenographer, Chris Dyer, refers to Napier’s work as being the culmination of the Fringe Theatre movement - the use of unorthodox methods to freshen the interaction of stage and audience.  Others have noted the strong Epic Theatre element in much of Herbert’s best work.  Koltai has often been cited as the outstanding English exponent of the Central European tradition of strong, consciously theatrical scenographers whose work claims equal attention with that of author, director and actor.


John Napier has often been referred to as the “hottest” young designer in England today.  Whatever else that terms may mean, it has clear validity in so far as Napier has been responsible for the scenography of three of England’s and subsequently New York’s most celebrated theatrical events during the past three years:The Greeks, and anthology of nine Greek plays condensed into a three part entertainment by the RSC early in 1980;Nicholas Nickleby,the RSC’s mammoth tow-part adaptation of Dickens novel, in the summer of 1980; and the commercial production ofCatsa musical extravaganza composed by A.L. Webber and based on T.S. Elliott’s light verse about cats, in the spring of 1981.  For six years prior to these three very complex productions, Napier had been concentrating on Shakespearean Production for the RSC.  And subsequent toCats, he prepared Shakespeare’sHenry I, Part I, which was chosen to open the new home of the RSC at the Barbican complex in the City of London in the spring of 1982.

Napier himself has said, “I have no personal style.”  His scenography is marked less by distinctive stylistic characteristics than by several general tendencies in staging and by his interest in what might best be called the communality of theatre: the collective involvement of many in the preparation of a production, and the collective involvement of audiences with a performance.  Jocelyn Herbert or Ralph Koltai, different as they are, work within fairly traditional perimeters: their basic separation of stage and audience space, the identity of scenographer as a discrete artist who, after consulting with a director, prepares of or more proposals for settings that whatever their freshness or imagery, fall within fairly established norms.  Napier, on the other hand, represents tendencies that implicitly question if not reject such standard methods.  Not that Napier overtly champions any special program in scenography, nor that his work is unique or unprecedented - others have experimented with similar modes - but his most celebrated recent work is out of the mainstream of contemporary establishment theatre and where it does echo the work that others have done and are doing, it does so with a flavour and vigour that are distinctively his.

The roots of Napier’s special scenographic tendencies go back to his days as a student at the Hornsey College of Art in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  He was exposed to “a hothouse, a kaleidoscope of ideas.  People where into all kinds of strange things, very abstract art forms.”  Eventually, well past the midpoint of this formal art studies, Napier began to experience a need for more direct awareness of life and people: “I wasn’t being fed with enough reality to be able to do anything of any significance whatsoever except to play around with pure form, idiosyncratic ideas.” He made a decision that once he finished the art college he would commit himself to working closely with other people.  “I didn’t and still don’t feel I’ve got anything to give the world in terms of just myself”

Having concentrated n sculpture during his final years at Hornsey, Napier spent the year after graduation working on an elaborate exhibit in Stratford upon Avon commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare's birth.  His supervision, Timothy O’Brian, an establish scenographer, recommended to Napier that he pursue the study of stage design at the Central School of Art in London.  Napier did so, but was about to leave after his first year there because he again felt out of touch with thing relevant to life or theatre.  The arrival of Ralph Koltai as new head of the program persuaded him to stay and complete the course: the work had become “very exciting.”  Napier was exposed to other stimuli as well during his final year of study. The Czech production of Capek’sThe Insect Comedy, designed by Svoboda, made a limited guest appearance in London in 1965 and impressed Napier strongly: “For me (Svoboda’s) scenography seemed sculptural, actually using space, not presenting a series of pictures.  Spectacular but also believable.  “Indeed, it is the combination of spectacle and believability that came to define Napier’s purpose, his need to believe and to have his audiences believe in what they are looking at, although not in a narrow illusionistic sense:  “I suppose I I’ve always - in the end - wanted to believe.  I don't care if it’s not naturalistic but I can’t believe in artificiality.  I want to be convinced.” Napier relates this conviction not only to the recent art trends towards increased detailed reality but also to his own inclination towards sculpture rather than painting or drawing the corporeal and tangible more than the abstract and distanced.  Both this preference foe sculpture and his desire for a strong degree of conviction are conductive, in turn, to his essential vision of an ideal theatre experience:  “I want to break down the usual distance between audience and stage, performers and public, partly because I’m not pictorial, not a painting person.  I want to wrap, involve people in the experience that’s going on - without being too environmentalist about it.  I’ve no axe to grind against a pictorial approach, “I don’t work images that way”

His attempts to involve the audience in the theatre experience culminated in the productions of NicklebyandCats, in which both scenery and performers wove in among parts of the audience.  The germ of this tendency had been present in some of Napier’s earlier work, likeEquus(National Theatre 1973) and the 1976 Stratford season, for which Napier revamped the interior of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre to break down the separation of stage and audience space. In both cases, audience seating for extended to the rear and sides of the stage, creating an unorthodox version of arena or central staging.

In a least two ways, Napier’s version of environmental staging differs from earlier and contemporary version: it does not destroy the essential aesthetic or psychological separation of actor and spectator, and it includes rather elaborate but theatrically atypical scenographic elements.  On the one hand, there is none of the physical contact or provocation of the audience by actors that marked performances of the Living Theatre of the Performance Group; other than marked performances of the personal banter between some performers and some parts of the audience, the traditional distance between actor and audience prevails.  On the other hand, unlike most other forms of environment theatre, Napier's reflects his penchant for a blend of pop art, found art, and sculptural collage.  The result is a spectacle based on the accumulation and proliferation of tangible, recognizable materials and artefacts of a given time and place, a highly littered environment which, along with the complex activity of the performers, creates a specific, fictive world and atmosphere.  It is not naturalistic: the sheer number and variety of objects as well as their artful placement and special heightening by texture, colour, or distortion in scale make the total effect more a matter of distinct artistic choices rather than slice of life banality.

Napier’s ideas and methods evolved along with the progress of his career.  Even before finishing formal study at the Central School, he was offered the position of Head of Design at the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester, some ninety miles north of London, where he remained a year and a half before moving on to work at the Nottingham Theatre.  One of his productions there, Peter Barnes’sThe Ruling Class(1969) moved to the West End and thus became Napier’s first major London production.  That same year, Napier began four seasons of work at the Royal Court, interspersed with assignments on the Continent, especially Germany.  At the Royal Court, he was able to blends his approach to stage reality and his sculptural talents with the Court’s understated, realistically based mode exemplified by most of Jocelyn Herbert’s work.  For one production, he imported tons of sand to represent a beach on stage.  For another, Harold Mueller’sBig Wolf(1972), Napier asked for the money the theatre would normally spend on having conventional scenery constructed, saying he would create the set in his own way.  He rented a warehouse in East London very cheaply, “hired a lorry and collected everything I needed.  I made an aeroplane and smashed it up, got these photographs and burned them.  It was great. . . . “The point was that he felt like a sculptor again, working with actual objects and materials but in stage terms.  Looking back on those early years of designing, Napier commented, “The time I’d been a sculpture student helped enormously.  I could weld, cast, make things, as well as anyone in the prop shop, work with any materials and use space.”

Since joining the RSC in 1974, Napier’s method of preparing the final design of a production has undergone a major shift, one that had its roots in his early desire to become more directly involved with people in his work.  As Napier explains it, “I used to submit a completed project and the rest adapted to it.  There was a certain amount of security in this; the design was the way I saw it.  Others would inhabit that world but I realized that I had pre-empted whatever they were going to do.  Now I’ve been working at really discovering the play with the others and then finding something that’s really glued together.”

He realized that it is a more time consuming process and that it means he leaves himself open to the idiosyncrasies of members of the group.  Nevertheless, although he can still produce designs on order for commercial productions, the core of his work, for the RSC, is collective.  On the whole, as he says, “The proof’s in the pudding.  The productions that were most successful, that made audiences feel something, become emotionally involved, were precisely those productions in which the work has been thoroughly co-operative.”

Most of Napier’s productions during the past ten years seem to be of two types, the spare and lightweight and the elaborately constructed, heavily furnished and profuse assemblages of seemingly random scraps.  Examples of the first type includeEquus, in which a virtually bare stage was enclosed by the audience.  The chief scenographic element consisted of Napier’s wire-sculpted horses’ heads and hooves worn by performers who mimed the horses.  The single, boldly stylized component produced a superb aesthetic shock, lifting the play immediately to a near mythic level.  Similarly austere but striking scenography was evident inA Midsummer Night’s Dream(RSC 1977),As You Like It(RSC 1977) andTwelfth Night(RSC 1978).  InTwelfth Nightthe key elements were a platform covered with different coloured pieces of leather and a cluster of small trees with delicately entwining branches, bare for the winter scenes and lightly dressed with leaves for spring. The Greeks(RSC 1980) was relatively more elaborate but still the primary impression was that of a single, continuous space, a central platform and relatively few, mostly sculpted objects to distinguish the special atmosphere of each play.  Some of the same objects served different functions in different plays, such as a totem pole fromThe Trojan Womenbecoming the shaft for Agamemnon’s chariot in Agamemnon.

The other type of production has had several variations. The Comedy of Errors(RSC 1976), like other plays that summer, was performed in a theatre transformed by Napier: the two top galleries of audience seating extended past the proscenium arch and continued onto the stage into a present day tourist square in Corfu: souvenir shops, straw hats, strings of coloured lights, bistros, loudspeakers and whorehouse balconies created a jaunty air of revelry and mock melodrama.  Some of the audience even sat at table adjoining the main area of action.  This somewhat cluttered but still traditional staging, evolved considerably in Napier’s three latest productions, already briefly described:Nicholas Nickleby(1980),Cats(1981) andHenry IV(1982).  These three productions represent the full flowering of his collective approach, his aim of audience involvement and his attraction to authentic, tangible reality, rather than pure form.

Each was designed for a different theatre and stage space. Nicklebywas done for the RSC in the cramped and antiquated Aldwych Theatre.  The production, which had two parts and ran over eight hours, used more than forty performers to play some one hundred and fifty roles.  The scenography was based on a complex, rambling structure of wood, metal and rope, catwalks, ladders and ramps that extended from the rear of the stage out into the audience, leaving the centre of the stage open but taking up the sides.  Two small platforms could move into the central acting area to allow for more focused scenes and solo sequences.  Napier’s remarks convey his special perspective on the production: “InNicklebywe’re actually doing a very bizarre thing – showing a kind of tangible reality but asking you to suspend disbelief.  It’s not naturalism.  We’re going to joggle a particular piece of space that we try to draw you into and you’re going to see the rich tapestry of life weaving through a particular era.

Pressures of budget and time created many problems.  As serious as any others, were those relating to costumes.  Napier’s ideas about fully co-operative involvement in the production process had a very practical application: “If a production is – on my terms – successful, there has to be an element of compromise, an element of agreement.  I’m less and less convinced by productions that don’t have that core.  When I do costumes now, I rarely draw them.  Most of the time I work directly with a group of actors, pulling things from stock and asking them to help choose their own.”

So many and so complex were the logistics of the production that Napier employed an associate designer to oversee the set construction while he focused on the costumes.  When all was said and done, the final effect seemed to satisfy Napier’s desire for a shared experience between audience and performers.  As one critic observed, “(Rarely) has any show generated such a sense of community between the stage and the house,”

Catswas produced in the New London Theatre, a structure designed by Sean Kenny (1932-1972), an earlier, important Irish scenographer who was also an architect.  Napier transformed this arena space into a three-sided circular seating arrangement around a raised, circular platform.  Ramps at ground level run off into the audience while ramps at the rear of the stage provide access to the upper seating areas, thus (as inNickleby) facilitating the occasional mingling of performers among spectators.  The entire central acting area and the first four rows of seats are in fact, on a huge turntable, thereby, transforming what seem to be two divorced stages into one integrated central stage with an elaborate background.

The darker world ofNicklebygave way to what Napier calls the “Disneyland” world ofCats, a sprawling junkyard deliberately outsized to provide a cat’s eye view of reality.  Compared to Nickleby,Catshas less sheer construction but many more specific objects and props.  The performers perform less in among the crannies of a structure than on top or in front of the piled up debris and in the many ramps running through the audience.  Incidentally, circumstances in this production (larger budget, fewer characters, more time) led Napier to follow the more usual practice of providing costume drawings to build costumes from scratch.  Needless to say, there are also more spectacular lighting, sound and kinetic effects, climaxing in the heavenly ascension of the cat Grizabella on top of a giant castoff tire.  The scale and effects are increased in the New York production, even to the point of breaking through the roof of the Winter Garden Theatre to allow for the installation of a huge metal slide construction used in the aforementioned ascension.

Henry IV, the initial production at the new Barbican Theatre, echoesNicklebymore than it doesCats. Once again, the key element is a complex, elaborate construction of levels, ramps, ladders, towers and stairways but with several notable differences: the construction is on four separate moveable units – an “acting machine,” in Napier’s words, made possible by the great offstage spaces in the Barbican.  The four huge mobile platforms can disappear, be used single, or in any combination.  This satisfied director Trevor Nunn’s wish to have a teeming world on stage but also the ability to be rid of it without pausing for normal scene changes.  As Napier describes it, “The trucks are loaded with medieval detritus – helmets, armour, cross-bows, spears, chains, all lashed on to the structure – not naturalistic in representing a specific thing of place but creating an atmosphere of a period, Brueghelesque in a way – military, religious, urban paraphernalia.”

One of the trucks is almost bare, a neutral space to be transformed into specific sites.  Drawbridges are used to join towers to each other, or to the auditorium.  It is, according to Napier, the biggest thing he’s ever done: “I decided to go into the Barbican with a bang, not a whimper.”  Nevertheless, as with Nickleby, costs were kept relatively low by recycling materials in the RSC storerooms and warehouses – lumber, hardwood, props and costumes.

It would seem that Napier has reached a plateau of relatively few but exhaustingly elaborate productions that are all the more draining because of Napier’s total involvement with them.  When I spoke to him in February and March of 1982, as he was working on plans for the New York production ofCats, as well as the final preparations forHenry IV, he made the somewhat surprising remark that he didn’t necessarily see himself spending the rest of his life as scenographer.  Having fulfilled his wish to be closely involved with other people, he finds that something in him “wants to go into a studio and be very private, put things down for myself in the form of drawing, sculpture, photography.”  Referring to himself as “magpie-like,” he said that he is always seeing something out of the corner of his eye that pulls him that way.  It will be interesting to see what attracts him next.  More scenography?  If so, in what vein?  And if not, scenography, what?

Unique in all the World by Seigfried & Roy 2008

A world that is unexplainable

John Napier is one of Britain’s most honoured and celebrated theatrical designers and has won numerous awards for productions such as Cats, Starlight Express, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Equus, and Peter Pan. He has designed for Steven Spielberg, Michael Jackson, and of course, Seigfreid & Roy.

“The irony of my working with Seigfried & Roy,” John Napier explains. “is that I had seen them, but not met them, in Las Vegas at the Frontier several years before. I was working in Los Angeles, and my wife and I took a trip to Las Vegas. At that time, I had never heard of Seigfried & Roy. But everyone said, ‘Oh, you have to go and see these two magicians. They are fantastic.’ So we managed to get tickets to Beyond Belief and saw the show.”

“We had also seen a few other shows while in town,” John continues, “and I was scoffing at the naivety and old-fashioned scenery. When I came out of Seigfried & Roy’s show, I said to my wife, ‘Wow! They were really interesting because they are dealing in a world that is unexplainable.’ They understood that you could build an entire show on pure ideas,that you have to find a language to work with that kind of thing. I remember thinking, if I were to come to Las Vegas, those are the guys I’d love to work with. Then I thought no more of it, realising that no-one is ever going to call me up to do a show in Vegas. I do the Royal National Theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and the odd musical in the West End.”

But John could not have been more wrong, as he was soon to find out. A few years later, Seigfried & Roy were touring Europe looking for talent to help them design the Mirage show. They were looking for someone who could understand what they wanted to do. “ I had finished Cats and was doing another show in London. Today, not many people know about it, but it was called Time. Seigfried had managed to drag Roy into town to see some shows. I think Roy was much more interested in going off somewhere to see wildlife. But somehow they came to see my show. I had lots of levitating things in it, including a huge extension ladder on stage, and a hologram with Laurence Olivier as a kind of ultimate being.”

“After Seigfried & Roy had seen the show, which had Cliff Richards in it—he was England’s Elvis Presley— they apparently said this is the guy for us. Whoever designed this show is the person we want. So they sent Kennenth Field after me with an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was that simple. It was also quite extraordinary. I thought about that moment when I had come out of their show thinking how much more organic, and much less like a Boulevard show they were. What they did was really extraordinary. It was more than the obvious, the tigers, and all those amazing illusions. The package itself was, however, relatively old-fashioned. So, when they first asked me, I was marginally frightened to do it because I had never done a Las Vegas show, or one on that scale. We also had just two years to come up with something and build it.”

John goes on to explain the process: “I spent months and months and months driving them completely bonkers, stark raving mad, because I kept going to see their show in Las Vegas, and they couldn’t understand why I wasn’t producing anything. I was waiting for the adrenaline moment—that moment of inspiration. I knew the only way I could get it is if I completely and utterly—as far as it was possible, because I was doing other shows at the time—immersed myself in their world. To look, really look at what they were doing with the illusions and what each illusion meant. To use what they do best—and what they do best is to be fantastic illusionists. Seigfried was the more ‘doer’ magician, while Roy was an amazing athlete. They were both phenomenal, as was the combination of the two of them working together—Roy’s physical dexterity, his special kind of energy and his way with the animals combined with Seigfried, the master of the universe magician. Together, they were astounding.”

“After waiting and waiting, Seigfried finally said, ‘When are you going to show us something?’ I said, ‘When I’m ready. I have to keep plodding through this process. I think they both started to get a bit nervous about me, thinking I was really not doing anything. I was scribbling, doing things back in London, and putting the blocks in place. Gradually, I began to piece the things together that I thought could be useful—to take what worked from the old show, figure how we could redress it, how we could reshape it, and how we would make the illusions look really different from what it had been before.”

They flew over to London and were completely blown away by what I had come up with—they couldn’t believe their eyes. One of the things that I was quite proud of is the fact that I had segued their ideas and illusions into sequences such as the Puppet Army and the Evil Queen, so that the same kind of organic feel would remain constant throughout the show. It was all there in a narrative with a very simple storyline of good and evil.”

But there was still one element that was missing,” John says. “And I had just settled on it when they arrived. I couldn’t show it to them because I didn’t have time to build the model. I later arrived in Tokyo after having made a miniature of the contraption and I presented it to them. They went ballistic. It was the Dragon. Originally, it was going to be a robot that changed shape and did things. Then I suddenly thought, We need a dragon, not a robot. It had to be mechanical because of the nature of what we were doing, but it should look mythological. It should be something that relates to them and is overpowering so that they have to prove their own powers. The sequence began with the Evil Queen, then the Puppet Army coming in, and then the dragon breathing fire and crushing Seigfried & Roy in tubes of metal. It was a mixture of the very best kind of Boulevard theatre, entertainment, and Las Vegas magic.” John describes their show as kind of where “Marvel Comics meets Wagner.”

Once the ideas were conceived, the show got to a point where it needed a director. “They interviewed two or three directors of substance,” he explains. “These people who had successful careers on Broadway or in Los Angeles, but Seigfried & Roy just would not bite the bullet. In the end, they turned to me and said, “John, you have to direct the show because you are the only person who understands how we work, and how to pull it all together.”

“This is with only six months to go,” John says. “I was just amazed that they would put that much faith in me. I’m a designer, not a director. Well, I got quite smart. I brought in John Caird, the director of Les Miserables to help me deal with the structure. I also brought in Anthony Van Laast (who had done Barnum and Song and Dance) to do the choreography and the staging. I told them what I wanted out of it—who should be where and then and they took it from there.”

“John Caird dealt more with the second part of the show where it became much more personable—the talking to the audience and ad-libbing and stuff. Anthony and I did the first half, the main part of the show which was the big spectacular. We dealt with the entrances and exits, all the explosions, and people levitating with flames going around them. It was extraordinary—mind boggling. I deliberately structured the first three-quarters of the show to be that way, but also realised in the last quarter of the show that they would need to communicate and create rapport with the audience. If you are doing twelve performances a week, you don’t want to be stuck in a glass jar and not be able to get out occasionally. So that was how the structure of the show came about.”

“There are so many wonderful stories,” John says. “Getting Michael Jackson to write the song for the finale was quite a coup. Years before, I had done some costumes for Michael. He phoned me at 4 a.m. one morning and said I need some costumes like Cats, but I want them black. So I designed them for him. During the Mirage rehearsals, Michael and I were having lunch in Las Vegas with Steve Wynn, I said, ‘Michael, I have a problem, I don’t have finale music.’ He said ‘I’ll do it for you.’ Michael had seen Seigfried & Roy at the Frontier. He was also excited about seeing their new show and what we were doing that he just wrote a song called Mind Is The Magic.”

Roy explains about the song: “One day, during rehearsal when we were at our lowest point, a messenger arrived at the theatre and handed me an envelope. Inside it was a cassette. I had no idea what it was so I handed it to the sound man and asked him to play it for us. What we heard made time stand still. This was Michael Jackson’s contribution to our show.” It was also the first time Michael had ever written, arranged, produced, and sung a song for someone else. Several days later, he showed up at rehearsal. “At that moment,” Roy said, “we felt out show had become real.”

“Michael had encompassed all the lyrics I needed,” John explains. “He encompassed all the musical structure I needed. Not only to do the finale, but to do the Puppet Army. The rhythms, the stuff with drums—what he did was just phenomenal.”

“Working with Seigfried was a times difficult,” John remembers, “because he is a demanding guy, and I was pushing the envelope. I didn’t want to do the show if it wasn’t going to be incredible, different— and very extraordinary. They were already extraordinary in what they could do. I had to find a new way of repackaging it and making it much, much more their show—them making everything happen, as opposed to just a cabaret show where they do a thematic act. I was linking the illusions together in sequences so they made some kind of organic sense.”

“I had seen, years before, that once you start putting a harness around magic and try to make it fit with a strong narrative, you actually end up defying the magic, because to do that you have to apply logic. I saw this happen with Merlin on Broadway starring Doug Henning. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, what a shame. It could be terrific but because of the storyline, it’s strangling him.’ Doug had to kind of pop in and out of character. And I thought, ‘I’m not going to impose that on Seigfried & Roy. They have to be themselves. We have to create characters around them who can advance some kind of storyline, but nothing that is too complex.’ Let the illusions be the most complex thing that is going on.”

“Magic has to find its own rhythm. I drove everyone crazy at rehearsals trying to find it, even Steve Wynn. He wanted to open the show six or eight weeks earlier that I was prepared to do. He had fast tracked the hotel. By November of 1989, this 650-million-dollar property was already open, but Steve didn’t have a show. The hatchet came down on me to open early, and I said no chance. We couldn’t open the show because it had to be right. It had such huge mechanical things. Today, you see what Cirque du Soleil does and it makes what we were doing seem simple. But in its day, it was way ahead of anything else out there.”

“Steve would come in every afternoon to see what we were doing. I remember after about the third week, when we realised what a boring job it is to do this stuff over and over and over again—the lighting, the sound, all the movements, the smoke—he finally said, ‘I get it now.’ The pressure to open was intense, but somehow it all came together. We were a great team. Finally, I knew we were ready, and it opened in February of 1990, a day or two earlier than my contractual obligation.”

“What Seigfried & Roy created took a lot of courage,” John insists. “They had seventy-five tons of scenery. A dragon powered by its own hydraulic system. The most sophisticated lighting system ever created at the time. It took seven computer boards just to run it. And to make everything work, there were three hundred miles of cable above and below the stage. It was a nightmare to mount. The stage had to be reinforced several times due to the weight of the structural items.”

“But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. It was a major trial and you had to come up with the goods. I think we got the balance absolutely right. Part of the mythology is in Seigfried & Roy’s own stories. They are extraordinary men. They test your worth in that Germanic way, and you have to stand-up for what you believe in; you have to know why you are doing what you do. Roy is a phenomenon—his love affair with the animals and his physical dexterity in the show. And Seigfried is an amazing performer and illusionist. I adore them both.”

John concludes the interview by saying:

It was a marriage made in heaven. It was tough, but it was also immensely respectful. Can you imagine them putting their entire trust in me? It was one of the high points of my life—a fantastic time. The pressure was far outweighed by the pleasure. The sheer knowledge that we were doing something that no one had ever done before. There ain’t another pair like ‘em, and there never will be!”

Likely, there will never be another individual like John Napier either. Seigfried explains: “‘You are the most difficult people I have ever worked with,’ John said many times, He was not quite right. We were impossible. There was, however, a chemistry among the three of us. Napier led us into the theatrical world and spoke of ideas we always thought, but never articulated. He made our tastes richer. We, in turn, stimulated his fantasy.”

John Napier - Interviewed by Irving Wardle

JOHN NAPIER - Interviewed by Irving Wardle

22 February 1993, Olivier Theatre

IW       I’ve always found designers the most interesting of all theatre workers to talk to, partly because they touch every aspect of the show, from disembodied ideas through to the actual materials of which the show is composed.  Also because, unlike acting and other intangible artistic matters appertaining to the theatre, there is a kind of nuts and bolts, solid vocabulary for what designers do.  John, you are making your return to the National after, is it twenty years?

JN       Yes, in fact, I’ve never worked in the new building.  They haven’t let me work here until now, on Trelawny of the Wells.  I worked for the National at the Old Vic and in fact, designed The Party, the last production Olivier was involved with, nearly twenty years ago.

IW       Since when there has bee a great mass of work.  You’d have to have been living somewhere other than the western hemisphere not to have encountered a Napier set in term of the mega-musicals, which have been orbiting the globe for the last fifteen years, not to mention work at Glyndebourne, the Royal Opera House and the Walt Disney Studios.  You are incontestably a star designer and I’d like to follow the sequence through and find out whether this was something you wanted or foresaw or was it thrust against you by circumstance?

JN       Where to start?  I guess I’m best known, as you say, for some rather huge musical events but in fact, my portfolio of work covers something like a hundred and fifty productions, from the use of a light-bulb and two boxes, through productions like Equus, to minimalism.  I guess I’m probably one of the most eclectic designers around because I don’t profess to have a style.  That started way back when I was a student.  I didn’t come into theatre to pronounce a style or become involved in stylisation or creating images that would project a style.  I got into theatre because I wanted to work with people at many different levels.  I started in fact, as a secondary modern school kid with a bunch of other kids who were basically factory fodder.  A particular art teacher took an interest in me and pushed me to go to art school.  I went there when I was fourteen and learnt how to draw and paint.  I gradually realised that my skills and talent were more in the tactile, three-dimensional area of manipulating objects.  I was never a very good painter, I draw adequately but I can form things in space.  So I went from a course, which covered everything to the sculpture course and studied that for five years.  That was my education.  It was fantastic, coming from a pretty dour secondary mod and going to an art school where I had the opportunity to re-educate myself, to learn a lot of things beside fine art and I seized the opportunity.  When I was about to graduate from what was then Hornsey College of Art, I had a premonition.  I could easily have gone into a studio on my own and whittled, been very internal and tried to discover myself in terms of abstract form and its relationship to me and other people but the world was going through a very strange period in the beginning to mid-sixties and most of the sculpture that was being done was what is now called conceptual and environmental.  My sculpture became very bizarre.  I was doing things, which I guess would now be called theatrical.  They were influenced by people like Rauschenberg and Oldenberg.  I was making things like vast, pillared cakes with mouths inside them.  I thought “I’m not sure I want to do this, not for maybe another twenty five or thirty years.  I think I need to go out and experience life, other people, find a way of communicating with other people and then maybe, at some distant point, I can go back to the studio and embrace that work again but with something behind it, as a human being, not just as a purveyor of abstractions”.  I realised I was twenty two or three and had not experienced the world.

I then met a couple of theatre designers who encouraged me to assist them.  I rather enjoyed myself and that’s when the story starts.  I realised I didn’t know enough about it, so I decided I should learn more about theatre design.  I had eight years of art school in the sixties.  It doesn’t come much better .

I went along for an interview at Central School of Art & Design, taking a portfolio full of all these bizarre pieces of sculpture.  They thought I was insane but accepted me.  I managed to wheedle a grant out of the Local Authority and did two years there.  I left after the first year because I thought it was all a bit fey and I was a very butch sculptor.  I was persuaded to go back by a gentleman called Ralph Koltai who, like my original teacher, seemed to see something in me.  He was taking over at Central and asked me to stay.  I did and carried on doing pieces of sculpture, putting them in boxes and saying “Actors can act on that”.  I had no idea what I was doing.

In my second year, it was the school’s Centenary year and there was an exhibition at which second and third year people could exhibit their work.  I put in models of Tamburlaine and Oedipus Rex.  The Tamburlaine consisted of a copper box with a great lump of molten lead stuck in it, which I’d spent months melting down and shaping.  A director came by and saw these things and offered me a job.  I ended up being Head of Design for the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester while I was in my second year at Central School.

I had to make a decision at that point, as to whether to say at college or go into the profession.  Of course, I chose the profession but I had an allegiance to Ralph and therefore, also continued my studies as best I could.  When it came to the final exams, there was a toss-up between attending technical and dress rehearsals of my first production or sitting the written exam for general studies.  I chose to go to the rehearsal.  I passed my exams at the college with flying colours.  I still have no certificate because it was refused until I sat the exam.  I don’t have a piece of paper that says I’m a theatre designer.  You just have to do it for yourself, if that kind of opportunity comes along.

IW       I may be wrong but I imagine Nicholas Nickleby was an important turning point.  I think you described it as a long period of improvisation that you and Trevor Nunn had that led up to that.  Could you talk about the time leading up to that, from the work you did at the Open Space with Charles Marowitz, some of which, I remember vividly.

JN       I did my stint at the Phoenix and the work we did was considered much too avant-guarde by the powers that be.  Therefore, after a year we were asked to remove ourselves and I wondered if I would ever become a theatre designer again.  I started to get involved in what I was really interested in – avant-guarde, underground theatre, happenings and so on.  I was quite involved with the setting up of places like the Open Space and the Theatre Upstairs.  Always the atmosphere was charged, exciting, thrilling.  You worked all night, painting or doing things that other normal human beings would consider mad.  Gradually you get a reputation for taking risks or being idiosyncratic.  I came along at a time when theatre was changing quite radically from staid, naturalistic plays to environmental, sculptural and physical.  I remember with great excitement, productions that came from all over the world to the Aldwych.  I’d be there queuing to see them, thrilled at what was going on.

IW       Did you have any strong feelings about Sean Kenny, who was operating in a not dissimilar area then?

JN       I have a strange connection with him.  I never met him.  I saw one production of his.  I was designing Cats for the New London Theatre, which Sean Kenny had helped design and which was considered to be a white elephant of a theatre – on-one ever made anything really work in there.  When I was asked to do Cats, having been part of the classical theatre, at the RSC for a couple of years and having just done Nickleby and The Greeks, I thought “Hmmm, this could be a bit twee, a bit pantomimic”.  So I drew on all the environmental work I’d done years before.  I was sitting at my drawing board, working on what to do with all these baffles and the strange combination of proscenium and open-plan theatre and to make it work commercially, I had to try to put another four hundred seats in.  At 4 o’clock one morning, drawing away, I had the creepiest feeling of my life.  It was like Sean Kenny was standing behind me and as I was changing the theatre, I felt I heard him saying “That’s what I intended”.  That sounds a bit mystical but there was definitely a sense of understanding what another designer had intended in the first place and that other people’s usage of the building had overlaid.  Cats seemed to work and it still continues to work.

IW       I remember the one time I met Kenny, he said we needed to tear down the theatres and build temporary structures until we had decided what theatre should be.

JN       An ironic thing is that here we are in the Olivier Theatre and it’s the first time I’ve worked here.  If I have a reputation for anything, it’s for being a bit of a Philistine when it comes to proscenium arches.  I have tended all my career to cover them up, punch holes in them, destroy them and try to break through so that there’s some kind of audience contact.  Now I’m in the Olivier, which has an open stage and at the end of the show, I bring on a proscenium arch.  I got a bit of a kick out of doing that.

To answer your question about Nicholas Nickleby – something that can only happen if a group of people have been working together for some considerable time.  Working in theatre is such a collaborative art form.  You have to put your own wishes to one side sometimes, or encourage people to do tings in a particular way.  Nickleby was the culmination of something like ten years’ work between myself, Trevor Nunn, John Caird and the members of the Royal Shakespeare Company.  It was one of the great delights of my life.  I so enjoyed being a member of that company.  That’s what I enjoy about coming to somewhere like the National.  I’ve really enjoyed being back in a theatre building, as opposed to being up against the gun in what has become a highly competitive commercial world, where there are big takes.  Here there is the sense of doing it for the sheer joy of doing it.  That can only happen when there’s at least five or six years of people working closely together.

IW       Would you care to relate that to the production of Mother Courage for the RSC, of which, I believe there is a tale to tell?

JN       It was my last production at the RSC on the main stage, apart from Les Miserables.  Judi Dench was Mother Courage and Howard Davies directed.  It’s been a bit of a stumbling block for a number of years because I tried to solve what was almost an insoluble problem.  It was as simple as this.  The RSC would have a permanent set, on which every production would have to be mounted.  A decision was taken earlier in the year, before I was involved in Mother Courage, to put, I believe, it was a one-in-fifteen rake on the stage of the Barbican, which would raise the front of the stage up by some eight or ten inches.  I tried every single way I could to put a revolve on the stage, not to be the same as the Berliner Ensemble production but to have the same feeling.  Then I got clever and the only way I could find of having a cart on that rake was to anchor it from a central point, with a counterweight.  A very simple idea but I made it much too complicated.  Judi Dench fought with that cart night after night and it was for her that I felt dreadful.  The one thing I’ve always tried to do is to service actors and that was a catastrophic example of trying to be a bit clever that backfired.  It looked pretty good but it continually went wrong.

Audience question

Can you let us into the secret of the very first meeting, when you know nothing about the play at all and have been asked to design it?

JN       When I said earlier that I find it interesting not to have a style, I meant that you start with a blank sheet, with whatever the play feeds to you, whatever the director or other people you’re working with feel is the intention of the piece.  It can come in seconds and sometimes it takes months and months.  There is no answer to that.  I’ve worked on productions like Equus, which I did in 24 hours.  Other productions have driven me almost insane with trying to solve their problems.  There are no rules.  I try not to make rules.  I try to enjoy, invent, use what skills I have.  I’ve found it incredibly difficult to delegate to other people what I do.  I have a wonderful group of people who work with me and have worked with me over the years.  They find it incredibly frustrating because I’m constantly changing my mind.  What I’ve found in recent years is that at the point of reading a script, I’ll have a sketchbook next to e and almost unconsciously doodle.  Then I’ll go through endless talks with the director, discussions with production people and I never open the sketchbook again until the production opens.  Almost inevitably the central theme is there in the sketchbook.  There is something you tap into which somehow finds its way through.

Audience question

How early in the design process do you work with the lighting designer?

JN       It depends on the production.  Some are immensely complicated.  I did a production of staggering proportions in Las Vegas three years ago, in which there were something like five thousand units, of which about six hundred were what we now describe as “intelligent lights”.  I worked with the lighting designer on that for nearly two years.  The technicals alone were over a period of three months.  I’ve worked very closely with David Hersey over the years.  We work almost by osmosis.  He’ll take a look at the set, watch rehearsals and do his thing.  Sometimes, especially in musicals, there are a lot of pyrotechnics built in to the set and of course, all of that has to be done well up front.

Audience question

Are you any more restricted working on a classic like Trelawny than on a new play?

JN       No.  I enjoy the mix.  I would like at the moment to be tackling some new plays, which is something I did in my early career – the Peter Barnes plays, the Edward Bond plays, strange German plays – I loved all that.

Audience question

You said that when you started, theatre was staid and naturalistic.  The set you’ve designed for Trelawny is naturalistic.  Are you going back?

JN       I’m just serving the play.  I enjoy working with John Caird, I like the play and I’ve got past the point where I feel a need to imbue anything with a particular style of my own.  There are other territories to explore now for me, in terms of film or maybe even directing something.  I’m less cocky than I used to be.  I think it’s important when you’re young to be cocky.  Trelawny was a nice piece to do.  A piece like this, you tamper with at your peril.  You can’t make statements of any magnitude.  It is what it is.

IW       Aren’t you making a statement by framing it in these shattered proscenium arches?

JN       No.  I think strangely logically.  I don’t see it as a picture.  The stage left box is required to have an actor sitting in it.  Therefore, it had to have a cantilevered platform out, it couldn’t fly out, it had to stay there.  I quite like the idea that it also brought in the Olivier stage to something a little more domestic in scale.  I enjoyed playing around with the scale so that there was a sense of real rooms, real people, real situations, as best you can in the thrust playing area.

Audience question

Can you give me some idea of the budget you’re given to design and is it true that the higher the budget the easier it is to design?

JN       The highest budget I’ve ever spent is $20,000,000.  The smallest I’ve ever spent is probably something like £20.  It doesn’t make any difference at all.  Sometimes the most apparently complex things are incredibly easy to get to.  Sometimes the simplest solutions take years.  One show I did, which I shan’t name but I did several productions of it.  I kept that little sketchbook going and after the third production, with many travails through major companies, we did a little studio production and that was the most successful. I looked in my sketchbook and the original sketches I’d done for the mega-production were of this very simple space but it took four years to get to that point.

Audience question

Do you have any interest in costume?

JN       I used to.  I just think there are people who are so much better than I am at it.  The only time I’ve been interested in recent years is when I’ve been able to do fantastical things where you have to invent a world and that world has to be inhabited in a special way.  Something like Cats or Starlight Express.  You have to know a bit about the pyrotechnics of the set to dress someone in a show like that.

Audience question

Do you have any advice for would-be theatre designers?

JN       Do your best.  That’s all you can do.  I don’t think there’s any short route.  It’s a very bizarre profession to be in.  You work alone, then you have to expose yourself to a small group of people, then to a large group of people.  It’s sometimes lonesome but it’s fun and has great moments of fulfilment.  One of the things it’s done for me is that every time you get a script, it’s a new story and therefore, you have to research or discover something new.  For me, it’s a continuing education.

Audience question

Do your sketches have people in them?

JN       They do.  I like people.  There are three or four productions of mine, which are high-tech.  I’ve been called “a purveyor of mechanical garbage” but I think theatre should be for people of every kind, not just people with BAs in English Literature and elbow patches.  I think it belongs to everyone – including children – and the more you encourage people to go to the theatre, the more it’s going to survive.  If we narrow it down to only those pieces which are to so with the English literary heritage, then I think it will be elitist and cliquey.  One of the tings I abhor is the idea that you cannot explore the full spectrum.  I’ll take anything on, have a go.  Something like Starlight was basically a bunch of boys who’d done a lot of classics and heavy duty plays for a long time, meet this guy, write a musical about steam trains.  You take your hat off and have a bit of fun.  It’s just a laugh.  If that was all I could do, I wouldn’t do it.  I love the fact that it can be so different.  To be able to do Trelawny after having done some of those things, is a joy.

Audience question

How have you prevented yourself becoming pigeon-holed?

JN       I think that stems from the fine-art training and from the idea that there are things to be done and things to enjoy.  Always to try and be inventive.  Presumably those who employ me have seen something of originality or inspiration but which still services the needs of the production.

Audience question

Have you got scripts waiting in the wings, as it were, or is it just one job at a time?

JN       This is amazing but I have now been doing theatre design for almost thirty years and there are only two occasions in which I haven’t been working.  One was when I left the Phoenix Theatre Leicester and once when I decided to take a holiday.  For some reason there have been very few breaks.  That is amazingly lucky and yes, there are seven or eight things waiting in the wings but I have decided, after one more “mega-musical”, which opens at the end of June, to take six months off and think about some other things I’d like to do.

Linda Joffee


Napier Vision

John Napier is one stage designer who doesn’t blend in with the scenery.  “Theatre,” he says, “should be all kinds of shades and colours and textures and idiosyncratic things – mad things.”

To his art school colleagues he was a madman.  By general concensus, he was the one least likely to succeed.

Today, more than two decades later, John Napier is widely acknowledged as the world’s top stage designer, his work dressing the sets of Starlight Express, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and other theatrical hits.

“There is some sort of idea that theatre design is effeminate,” says the 46-year-old, British-born Napier, who has, with his rugged face and frame, the appearance more of an athlete than an aesthete.  “Well, when I got to theatre school, the reality of it was effeminate; it was tacky.  It was full of mincing ideas.  There were no big ideas.  Everybody was tiddling about with a pair of tweezers.  So one of the things in which I have notoriety and one of the reasons I’ve been successful is that I cut across the grain of that image.  I’m not interested in mincing around.”

Nor in mincing words.  A few years back, when Broadway honoured him with a Tony Award for designing the internationally hailed musical Les Miserables,  Napier, instead of gushing the requisite gracious thank you, asked with a palpably peeved expression how he could be getting a prize for that show and not Starlight Express – which he knew to be, in terms of design, a far superior creation.  (Napier did receive a Tony that night for Starlight Express but it was for the production’s costumes.)  The band quickly came in as a signal for him to leave the stage.  Few awards have ever been so audaciously received.

“I put my foot in my mouth,” says Napier, without hesitation.  “I should never have done it.”  He then gives a surprisingly thoughtful account of what was behind the unusual award acceptance, which made news on both sides of the Atlantic.  It reveals much about the man.  That morning, explains Napier, he had read a newspaper piece written by a major theatre critic assessing the Tony nominees and probable outcome.  In the course of the article, the critic had underscored Napier’s own sentiments:  that it was “absolutely, patently absurd”  (Napier’s words) for Starlight Express to have been nominated in a number of categories but not design – the one area in which it indisputedly excelled.  With its daring use of ramps, bridges, kaleidoscopic colours and innovative high-tech lighting, evocative of a gigantic toy train set on which actors whizz around in roller skates as anthropomorphic locomotives, Starlight Express transformed New York’s Gershwin Theatre into a ‘theatrical Disneyland,” as one paper described it.  All told, it took more than 20 weeks to construct; the average Broadway production takes a fifth of that time to put together.  Napier, who has concocted more than 160 stage creations, knows by instinct when a set works and when it doesn’t.  This one worked.

“I’ll tell you why I was much prouder of Starlight than Les Miserable.  Because,” says the designer, “Starlight was vulgar and it was enjoyable.  It was an attempt to do something that was popular but wasn’t just vaudeville . . . and was more to do with rock concerts than the detached world of theatre that has become something in which you have to have a BA in English Literature to appreciate.  I don’t subscribe to that.  I think theatre should be all kinds of shades and colours and textures and idiosyncratic things – mad things – and not just two actors and bare boards . . . Les Miz, as far s I was concerned, was yet again an award being given for something that was in the straight tradition of putting on classic pieces.”

We are talking on the ground floor of Napier’s stark white, sunlit studio, almost entirely fenestrated from floor to ceiling.  It’s a stone’s throw from the Barbican Theatre, the London home of the world renowned Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).  Napier, an in-house designer of the troupe for more than a decade until he went independent a few years back, was of the RSC’s stars.  Then, as now, whenever Napier’s name was associated with a production, the knowledgeable theatergoer awaited the expected visual treat with as much anticipation as the show itself.

Few, if any, stage designers command such conscious awareness among audiences; however good, designers invariably blend in (so to speak) with the scenery.  Not so Napier; his range is astonishingly diverse.  In Peter Shaffer’s Equus (1973), for example, virtually the only element of visual adornment came when the actors sported larger-than-life, wire-sculpted horses’ heads and hooves to convey, through mine, a stable of stallions.  This, juxtaposed with the simple but striking equestrian imagery, made startling dramatic impact.

With the hugely successful RSC production of Nicholas Nickleby (1980), adapted from the novel by Charles Dickens, the sprawling eight-hour epic was given shape in particular by Napier’s inventive use of stage space, defined by a complicated network of catwalks, ropes and ladders, with ramps extending out into the audience.  The constant lightning-swift shift of scenes occurred from every direction, in and around the audience when any of the 40 actors, who played some 150 characters over the course of the show, were not part of the action, they stood or sat around the sides, below or above, watching the events unfold.  The style has since been much occupied but when used by Napier in the original Nicholas Nickleby production, the effect was new and exhilarating.

With Cats, the designer’s penchant for sculpture came fully to the fore.  At the New London Theatre, where the show got its world premiere in 1981 and continues to be one of the city’s hottest tickets, the stage is transformed into a three-sided arena with ramps extending, once again, into the audience.  An enormous junkyard constructed to convey a feline’s view of the world is set on a giant turntable, which, at the beginning of the show, slowly revolves halfway round the theatre, taking with it the first few rows of the audience.  In doing so, it brings together two separate halves of the junkyard debris – an amazing visual experience.

Another coup de theatre comes later in the show when one of the cats runs out of lives and makes a dramatic heavenly ascent.  In the New York version at the Wintergarden Theatre, the set is extended to the point of actually breaking through the roof for the skyward climb.  In design terms, from the costumes that Napier also devised to the total departure of traditional uses of theatre space, Cats has come to mark a turning point in staging.  Yet, surprisingly, Napier insists that he was unaware at that time, of anything momentous happening.

“Cats was a job,” he says simply.  “I just did it.”  “His motivation,” he says was doing “something based on the work of a poet (TS Eliot, from whom the show gets its inspiration and many of its lyrics) that was non-literal.  And it was amusing.  One had to find a world – invent a world – that was, on the one hand, semi-naturalistic and on the other, fantastical.

Talk to anyone in the business and the general view is that Napier is in a class of his own.  A fellow stage designer explains why.  “Given a problem, John doesn’t tackle it head on like most people would,” he observes but “from a 273° angle; he comes in from a completely different direction.  Sometimes there’s an obvious answer but he never goes for that.  He has a very different approach; he is really a theatrical-sculptural approach.”

If it all suggests a highly ambitious, perhaps even driven man, Napier professes to be nothing of the sort.  Rather, he maintains that he is profoundly lazy and a dreamer from his school days when he would simply ‘saw away’ for hours on end, unable to concentrate on anything but sculpture and fine art, which he went on to college to study.  The picture Napier paints of himself, however, is not wholly convincing.  He may have had his head in the clouds but his feet have clearly been firmly planted on the ground from way back.  Indeed, it was a rather shrewd psychological realization as a young art student that him in the direction of theatre design.

“It hit me one day, like a thunderbolt,” remembers Napier, “that it’s all very well to be esoteric and delighted in yourself with what you are doing as an artist but it actually has not substance other than pure form.  Although I enjoyed the physical and mental qualities of this kind of abstract maze, I realized I was digging my way in to a cul-de-sac where there was no contact with other people or other situations that could then be used and put back into the work.  It was, in fact, a vacuum.”

At this point, the cigarette Napier is holding as he cradles his half-drunk cup of coffee unloads sits heavy ashes into his drink.  “Here’s somebody who is really articulate with his hands,” he quips with dry self-deprecation.  “That’s the kind of thing I do all the time.”

The phone rings, a New York call regarding Miss Saigon, which is currently occupying Napier’s thoughts.  The original set’s impressive size, which was appropriate for London’s theatre Royal, Drury Lane, has to be condensed for Broadway.  But this is not a new problem.  “London theatres tend to be larger than those anywhere else,” he says.  “So, after the initial production, I frequently have to scale the whole thing down to go to Broadway and for a life after that in Australia, Hong Kong, Canada, or wherever.”

Designing Miss Saigon is a good example of the way Napier works.  As he describes it, there is, typically, a phone call from either a director or producer, to see if he is interested and available for, a particular project.  With Miss Saigon, the person on the other end of the line was British producer Cameron Mackintosh (Cats, Les Miserables), with whom Napier has previously collaborated.

“I can usually be heard mumbling and wheezing in the background in the background,” says Napier: “ ‘ummm, I’m not sure; I’ve got a lot on; ahhh, ummm, I don’t know ….’ I never attempt to engage myself in anything.  I run a mile.  I think:  another thing to do, another trial with a blank piece of paper.”

After exhausting all possible escape routes, Napier will more often than not agree to do the show.  He is then given the script, or, with a musical such as Miss Saigon, a scripted book where the characters re delineated, plus a scene-by-scene breakdown of the story and stage directions.  “But there is no written thesis by which you can operate,” he says.  “In the case of Miss Saigon, for instance, there was a crafted book with lyrics in it and it just said: ‘This scene takes place in a brothel, or a bar, or a hotel room…then you’re on the [US] embassy roof and a helicopter lands.’  And as a designer, you’re reading through something like the helicopter landing and you go, ‘Oh yeh?...’  You nearly tear it out to send back to them to say, ‘Can you re-write this?’

“In Miss Saigon it’s quite clearly part of the structure of the piece that it goes from strangely romantic/poetic, very theatrical moments, ‘says Napier, ‘into something that has a kind of stark realism about it that snaps you back, even though it’s a dream-like sequence.  It’s the section in which you almost have to invent your own world.”

It is a designer’s job to make such an assessment.  Each one interprets the visual requirements of a production differently.  As Napier’s assistant, Paul Ghirardani, puts it: “The design process is a complete mystery …I’ve worked with other top designers but it’s particularly thrilling to work with John.  He’ll walk around the studio or, you know, sit there smoking and thinking about the problem – and finding all sorts of diversions.  Then, just when you think time is running out, he’ll come up with something quite remarkable, some fantastic answer.  The scope of his imagination is extraordinary.”

Ask Napier himself how he does it, and he struggles as best he can for an honest answer.  “You’re part director, part visionary, part madman and part sitting there at 4am smoking, swigging cups of coffee, trying to pull out from this blank piece of paper an image that someone else, or a group of people, will lock into, which will be a pathway to making a production soar.  It’s definitely not that fey image of someone who sits there:  “I wonder if it would be nice to have violet and lemon.’”

It comes as no surprise that Napier’s reputation is rapidly extending beyond theatre.  Top American film director, Steven Spielberg, for instance, sought out the British designer to devise the sets for his blockbuster, Raiders of the Lost Ark.   (Napier had to turn him down because of a prior agreement to design the upcoming RSC stage version of Peter Pan.)  Rock star, Michael Jackson, used Napier’s creations for his short 3-D film, Captain Eo.  And, more recently, the German-born illusionists, Siegfried & Roy, snared Napier to design their new show at Las Vegas’ Mirage Hotel, which, at US$67.5million, is believed to be the most expensive piece of entertainment ever put together for the stage.  When the men saw Napier’s design for Time (1986) in London, an extravagantly surreal rock sci-fi musical during which the whole theatre seemed to shade as a giant space vehicle landed, they knew he was their man.

The Mirage project took two years to devise and finally opened at the beginning of this year.  As well as being the designer, Napier also co-directed the production, along with John Caird (co-director for Nicholas Nickleby and Les Miserables), whom he brought in to help give it dramatic shape.  In style and artistic conception, the end result is said to catapult stage entertainment into an entirely new dimension.  Indeed, in box-office terms, it is currently setting new records for a Las Vegas show.

“There was one rule when I was asked to do it; that it would e family entertainment, so no nudity,” says Napier.  “And I wanted to avoid all of the obvious Las Vegas clichés – so no staircases, no top hats, no sequins.  I addressed the project in exactly the same way as I would if I were doing a piece of work for the Royal Opera House and a rock concert at the same time.  I tried to bring those two worlds – Wagnerian and pop culture – together.”

Replete with a huge mechanical dragon, wicked queen, creatures from outer space, plus Siegfried & Roy themselves, appearing and disappearing throughout the act with their 17 royal while tigers, the show is, as the designer puts it, “a Marvel-comics ride of magic, not to mention the hardest thing that I have ever done.”

Despite his many years in the business and the countless accolades he has received, Napier says he is yet to be bored by it all.  “No, not at all; it’s a wonderful profession.  I subscribe to the notion that the theatre is an incredible place.  I love the idea of it being a bastion of immediacy, with an audience that cannot be found with, for example, films.”  Napier is, however, very much aware of film and its effect on theatre.  “There are several generations of people now, whose visual vocabulary, their understanding, their logic, is to do with the way in which a film is constructed.”

“So the real challenge, if we don’t want theatre to become a kind of atrophied museum of ideas, is to go out there and not compete with film but actually investigate our own ways of being just as visually exciting.” 

Linda Joffee

28th November 1984
William B Collins, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Creating the alley for exotic 'Cats'

British set designer John Napier sometimes remodels the theater.

Transcript below



British set designer, John Napier, sometimes remodels the theatre – by William B Collins, The Philadelphia Inquirer


On November 12, they delivered the catwalk, the chain motors and the miscellaneous items grouped under the heading ‘electrics’.  The next day, the sound equipment arrived.  The day after that, parts of the set were brought in with the Tire on which Grizabella ascends to heaven.

After the 15 trucks had delivered all the goods to the Forrest Theatre, after bits and pieces of cloth and detritus had been carefully laid out across the rows of seats in the orchestra section, the man from whose mind all this had sprung, came to Philadelphia to look in on the installation of Cats, the hit musical that will start its local engagement with a weekend of previews beginning Friday.

Having surveyed the busy scene with a practiced eye, designer John Napier allowed himself to be led downstairs to the theatre’s spacious lounge to talk about himself and the show whose extravagantly fanciful look he created.

Out of his fertile imagination, the congenial Briton had brought forth a tribe of exotic alley cats and had dreamed up a larger than life junkyard as the wondrous site for their annual ball.  He had help from composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, from director, Trevor Nunn and from a series of poems by T S Eliot, who dropped from the sublime to the silly in his playful Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

The musical is, outstandingly, a show shaped for a special environment and that environment has undergone a series of transformations since its first opening in 1981, at the New London Theatre in London.

Napier has overseen each new incarnation of the show, which is played in the round in London but in a modified proscenium style at the Winter Garden in New York.  Napier’s drastic surgery on the interior of the Winter Garden is the stuff of theatrical legend.

What I’ve insisted on from the beginning is that at no point should we ever say “that’s enough”, he said “I’ve insisted that we achieve as much as it is physically possible to achieve within the circumstances that we are presented with.  In some cases, people believe the show has been enhanced by the changes.

Even so, the Forrest Theatre has escaped extensive remodelling, as did the theatres that the national company played in Boston and Washington.

“We’ve had to enlarge or cut down every facet of the production,” the designer said”.  “Obviously, when the show is going to sit in place as long as it has and will in New York, you can turn a maniac like me loosen the building”, but the Forrest Theatre was something else: The production will be here for four months or so and then will move on to another city and the damage has been limited to ripping out the front row of 24 seats.

“This auditorium is so beautiful”, Napier said.  “It’s use of the prettiest I’ve seen.  Even I would feel very cautious about taking liberties with it.

“In Vienna, we played the Theatre an der Wien, where Mozart first performed Cosi fan tutte.  You have to be a little guarded about the use of jackhammers in a place like that”. 

Cats is neither the first nor the lat of the shows that owe much of their power to Napier’s concepts.  He was the one who made Equus look as if it was taking place in a medical school amphitheatre and put wire horse-heads on the mimes who portrayed the horses.  The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby took place in Napier’s evocation of Charles Dickens’ London.  The current London hit musical Starlight Express runs on tracks and over bridges that came from Napier’s drawing board.

Like a New Land

In each of these cases, the designer has extended the limits of the theatre.  He does not design scenery, he claims new spaces.  Like an explorer planting a flag in a new land.

Napier traces this habit to his beginnings as a sculptor.  “I was 18 or 19 before I was really aware of theatre at all”, he said “and by that time, I was a student of sculpture.  Sculpture is a very personal art.  I work in space rather than with images.  I am not a ‘scenic designer’.  I’m not a painter”.

“If anyone asked me to design a production in a conventional way, I would have to say I don’t know how to do it”.

“I got interested in the theatre in the early 60s when the whole theatre was going through some kind of lurch trying to come to grips with another generation.  There were all kinds of movements going on – conceptualist sculpture and happenings – all kinds of wild things going on”.

Napier went to the Central School in London and drew a lot of flak.  “I wasn’t interested in being taught how to paint scenery”.  He said “my interest lay in trying to galvanise the things I’d learned from sculpture and apply them to the theatre and I needed help”. 

Instead of help, he got arguments from the faculty.  He was told he would never succeed in stage design and after a year, he dropped out.  But then Ralph Koltai took over the scenic design course and persuaded Napier to drop back in.  Koltai’s work can be seen currently in New York, in the sets he designed for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Much Ado About Nothing and Cyrano de Bergerac.

“I spent two years studying with Ralph”’ Napier said, “we had a rapport, I was allowed to develop”.

A Nunn Cohort

One of the most rewarding collaborations in the contemporary theatre has been Napier’s with Nunn, with whom Napier worked on productions at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where Nunn has been co-artistic director.

When Nunn started thinking about doing a new Andrew Lloyd Webber in a commercial production outside the Royal Shakespeare, he got in touch with Napier.  “Andrew had written five or six numbers for this show that they had a kind of vague idea about”, Napier recalled “They were trying to find a way of legitimising a production that would be so episodic, something that was danger was that the show would be too much like the holiday pantomimes that had entertained generations of British kids with actors in animal suits.

“There is a concept about animals on the stage in England that we call ’twee’”, Napier said.  “‘Twee’ means unsubstantial and comic and fey, unbelievable cartooning.”

“My instinct was that we should have something roughshod and real within a theatrical framework that would be slightly dangerous and mysterious.  We had to take the audience’s imagination one huge leap the minute they walked in.  I wanted them to know that it was not going to be a pantomime.  It was our deliberate intention to make it trashy, very sleazy, very alley-cat world”.

In choosing a setting for the cats, Napier rejected the cliché of roof-tops, where dancing would have been impossible anyway.  Instead, he came up with the junkyard.

“The costumes were the hardest part”, Napier said.  “The experience I had with Equus was of value.  The way I saw the horse in that play helped me enormously in thinking about humans as animals.  The intention was never to lose the human being in the cat guises”.

With costume and makeup, Napier made the singing, dancing actors suggest ‘catness ‘without trying to make them 100% like real cats.  “If you get it right, the audience fills in the gaps”’ he said.

The show was still an unrelated string of song and dance turns when Grizabella popped up.  She and her song “Memories”, were inspired by a fragment of a poem found among Eliot’s unpublished works.

“She was Judy Garland at the end of her life”, Napier said.  “She was an Edith Piaf, a burned-out Billie Holiday.  She was the most human of the cats”.

She was also the presence that gave the show the meaning it had been looking for.  “Trevor told me we needed a spectacular event at the end of the show”.  Napier said, “He told me to go away and do it.  Trevor and I work that way, by osmosis”.

Napier said the trip to the “heavy, side layer” mentioned by Eliot provided the clue.  The rest came to him in his sleep.  “In the early hours of the morning, I woke up thinking, “Tire, tire, smoke, smoke, light”.  And that is what came into being.  An enormous tire carries Grizabella heavenward in a scene reminiscent of Little Eva’s transfiguration in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Inevitably, the question arose: Is Napier a cat person?

“Off and on”, he said, “when I have cats, I love them.  I had one cat that was extraordinary.  His name was Christmas.  On a particularly cold Christmas Eve, I heard this tapping at the window.  I went to the front door and opened it but no one was there.  This happened several times.  The last time, I didn’t even notice that this black cat had walked in.  He sat down by the fire and purred.  He stayed on.”

“Actually, I like dogs.  I think I’m more suited to them”.

5th December 2005
Royal National Theatre Archive

Document of the week Equus horse headdresses at the Design Museum

This weeks selection of images was chosen to coincide with the exhibition of items from the NT Archive in the Designing Britain exhibition at the Design Museum.


1 April 1984
The Sunday Times
Susan Raven, The Sunday Times Magazine

The Return of Nicholas Nickleby

At first it seemed like an eccentric flop; a nine hour cult of the year.


The man who won't be winning an Oscar

John Napier, master of stage design; worked on the sets for the Oscar-nominated film Hook.


19th November 1996
Jasper Rees, Evening Standard

The man who brought J C down to earth

From elegant staircases to full-size helicopters, John Napier's work dominates the West End.