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.