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”.