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