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?