Nick Smurthwaite talks to John Napier, the man behind the scenes of Peter Pan at the National Theatre.

The tools of John Napier’s trade are an HB pencil, a sheet of cartridge paper, and his imagination. He may be world-renowned for the technical accomplishments of his stage designs (Starlight Express, Miss Saigon, Sunset Boulevard, among others), but this is not a man in thrall to the wonders of technology.

“People think I’m a mechanic or an engineer but I have no knowledge of those things. I hardly know how to work a computer. I rely very much on the expertise of other people.” What makes John Napier special, by his own reckoning, is a “curious blend of imagination and an ability to pull disparate ideas together in a concrete form.” But there are two other components to Napier’s success, which he omits to mention.

The first is an innate understanding of what works in terms of design, the kind of vision and intelligence that can only be acquired by years of hacking away at the coal face. Scores of modest, unremarkable sets were undertaken before he started conjuring up helicopters, swimming pools, revolutionary barricades and roller-skating locomotives.

The other factor is that everybody likes him. He loves the camaraderie of a company, the cut and thrust of a shared experience. With his thick mane of straggly grey locks, ruggedly handsome features and gentle, self-deprecating manner, Napier is in the Alan Rickman league of middle-aged men who haven’t gone to seed.

That said, there is a distinct whiff of midlife disenchantment in his City of London studio the day I call. “I’ve got to stop for a while and reappraise things,” he says, apropos of nothing in particular. “I sometimes feel I’d like to do something else. I need to do my own thing.”

So why doesn’t he? He reaps the financial rewards of Cats, Starlight, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Sunset around the world… the man need never work again, for goodness sake. In the lottery of theatrical endeavour, he’s hit the jackpot. So why not take a sabbatical, cut off from the neurotic world of showbiz, paint that long-awaited masterpiece?

Here’s the dilemma: To be judged as a fine artist when you are world-renowned as a set designer is a bit like a prime-time script-writer aspiring to write the great novel. After so much acclaim, Napier can scarcely have doubts about his own ability to deliver the goods, brilliantly. But would he attract comparable accolades as the fine artist he once intended to be?

Trevor Nunn, newly appointed director of the National Theatre and an old friend, with whom he worked on Cats, Starlight Express and Sunset Boulevard, has never sensed any creative frustration. “He paints, he sculpts, he’s a terrific photographer, and theatre is in his blood. I can’t imagine he goes around thinking ‘If only I could have a one-man show.'”

An 11-plus failure, Napier was packed off to art school where he showed a particular talent for sculpture. “At the time, I didn’t want to sit on my own in a studio staring at abstract objects in space. So I made a conscious decision to apply my skills to another art form, the theatre. But I definitely recall feeling that one day I would return to fine art, when my empty vessel had filled up a bit.”

Napier averages two shows a year these days, but once it was anything between 15 and 20… “a lot of Macbeths, po-faced classical stuff, as well as contemporary writers like Edward Bond and David Hare”. His best remembered shows, in the days before the mega musicals, were Nicholas Nickleby for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National’s Equus, with those sinister, shimmering, wire-frame horses.

Like all genuinely creative people, he is rarely satisfied yet hastily defensive. “I usually loathe things after I’ve finished them,” he says matter-of-factly. “Six months later I’m embarrassed to admit I did them.”

Of the big shows, the one he is least embarrassed to own up to, is Les Miserables. “That was one of my best. It’s a simple, eloquent device for telling an epic story. Basically, I used the back walls of the stage, with two abstract wooden structures round on a revolve. I thought it was in the best tradition of simple story-telling, yet it provoked such an outcry about high technology when it opened.”

He feels equally protective of the helicopter sequence in Miss Saigon, often cited as the ultimate in designer trickery. Was it his idea? “No, it was in the script. I laughed when I first read it. I thought ‘No way’, but then I thought about it and realised it could be done quite easily. All it consists of is a big piece of aluminium moulded into a helicopter shape, and the rotor blades are two pieces of string with rubber balls on the end, attached to a little motor. It’s an illusion, nobody really goes up and down in it.”

It was while he was working on the Broadway production of Miss Saigon that he received a call from Steven Spielberg, asking him to work as production designer on his Peter Pan movie, Hook.

“I’d met Steven eight years prior to that at the first night party for Cats in New York, and we got on really well. He wanted me to work on one of the Raiders films with him, but I was committed to doing Peter Pan for the RSC, as well as other theatre work for a year or more. He told me he planned to make a Peter Pan film one day and asked if I would like to work on it. What I learnt from Hook was that theatre is much harder than movies, much more disciplined. You have this vast back-up in movies, it’s easier to dress it up, cover up your mistakes. You can’t do that in the theatre.”

Why didn’t he go on to do other films? “I’ve looked at other movie scripts over the years, and most of them were rubbish. I don’t want to do it just for the sake of doing it. I’d only do it if it was with interesting people and a great script. It’s a myth that film designers earn more than successful theatre designers. If you have a big hit musical you’re going to earn substantially more than even the top film designers.”

The point about Napier’s stage work, of course, is that it already has a kind of cinematic sweep, when you consider Norma Desmond’s rococo mansion in Sunset Boulevard and, more recently, the dazzling transformation of London’s Lyceum into a Roman brick amphitheatre for Jesus Christ Superstar.

Looking back over his 30-year career, Napier has no doubt about the happiest time of his life – his years with Trevor Nunn at the RSC. “I miss with a passion the idealism of being part of a company. There was a terrific feeling of camaraderie – nearly all the people I worked with became life-long friends.”

Both Napier and Nunn seem to be eager to renew the working friendship, now that the latter has succeeded to Richard Eyre’s throne on the South Bank. “I don’t feel I can operate properly without contact and consultation with John,” says Nunn.

Their first reunion, Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People with Ian McKellen, met with a mixed reception from the critics. Many accused Napier’s ornate and elaborate townscape of eclipsing the serious intent of Ibsen’s drama.

Despite his pleasure at working with old mates like Nunn and John Caird, director of Peter Pan, Napier persists in talking of “retirement” or at least a sabbatical, while hinting at the same time that he is currently considering an offer that he may be unable to refuse.

“Unlike a lot of people whose passion for the theatre is boundless, mine isn’t. I happen to think there are worthier things in life and find the seriousness with which we take ourselves increasingly irritating. Much as I love the theatre, it is not my life. I could just as happily paint or sculpt or take photographs or go fishing.”

The making of Peter Pan

‘It’s big but not especially complicated,’ says the man who has staged the French Revolution (Les Miserables) and the evacuation of Saigon (Miss Saigon). ‘To be honest, the main motivation for doing it again is that I have young children who have never seen it.’

When John Napier talks about ‘doing it again’ he refers to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1982 production of Peter Pan, which packed the Barbican Theatre for three successive seasons. Like Nicholas Nickleby and Once In A Lifetime, other RSC successes for Napier of that period, it was one of those benchmark shows that people still talk about 15 years on.

The decision to revive it may look like an easy option for Napier and director John Caird, but they had to start virtually from scratch. None of the plans and elevations from the 1982 set were still in existence. All Napier had to go on was a set of colour photographs and his memory.

‘It’s all quite old-fashioned really, a succession of picture-book sets – nothing radical.

Barrie’s descriptions are so vivid that the text is all you need. When he says something like “All the seasons co-exist at the same time in Neverland”, it gives you free licence to do all manner of amazing things.’

It is being staged in the National Theatre’s vast Olivier auditorium, seating 1100, which has the worst sightlines problems of all three of the venues’ auditoriums. On the credit side, the stage thrusts into the audience, unlike the Barbican’s conventional proscenium arch, enabling the action to be more in-your-face.

The Olivier stage also boasts a revolve and, uniquely in London, a hydraulically operated cylindrical ‘drum’ mechanism, which enables designers to compartmentalise various settings.

So Napier is able to show the lost boys flying towards Neverland – the audience sees it from their perspective – before the drum rises and revolves to reveal a close-up view of the island. The effect is daringly cinematic in its sweep.

Napier has also created a lagoon in which the dreaded crocodile lurks and where the lost boys go swimming. Real water was never an option, so Napier used the age-old theatrical device of rippling silk with holes cut in it.

The production reunites Napier not only with director John Caird (Les Miserables), but also with costume designer Andreane Neofitou (Les Miserables, Miss Saigon) and lighting wizard David Hersey (Cats, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Jesus Christ Superstar), both of whom worked on the RSC Peter Pan.

‘David and I have worked together since the early Seventies,’ says Napier. ‘He is the unsung hero of so many shows. He made my horrible grey, abstract barricades for Les Miserables look fantastic. Basically, I’m not a colourist, so I need David to bring my stuff to life.’

A small but significant aspect of any Peter Pan is the flying, and it has fallen to the transatlantic company Flying By Foy to make it all look as magical and effortless as possible. Again the Olivier has proved difficult because, unlike more conventional stages, it has no ‘wings’ to speak of, so the actors have to be propelled upwards and sideways, soaring some 12m above the audience, before they can be spirited away.

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