John Napier ~ Stage Designer

Nickelby
John Napier's design for the Royal Shakespeare Company's 'Nicholas Nickleby' presented at the Aldwych Theatre, London. Directed by Sir Trevor Nunn with lighting by David Hersey.

Date: 1980
Photographer ©John Napier and RSC.
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Ceunnles
The Crummles Theatre Group: John Napier's design for the Royal Shakespeare Company's 'Nicholas Nickleby' presented at the Aldwych Theatre, London. Directed by Sir Trevor Nunn with lighting by David Hersey.

Date: 1980
Photographer ©John Napier and RSC.
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Don Giovanni
John Napier's design for Mozart's 'Don Giovanni' presented
by Welsh National Opera.   Directed by John Caird

Date: 2011
Photographer: Unknown ©John Napier and Welsh National Opera
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John Napier (b. 1944)

NapierJohn Napier, theatre designer.

Date: ca2010.
Photographer : Unknown. ©John Napier

John Napier studied fine art at Hornsey College of Art in the early 1960s and theatre design at the Central School of Arts and Crafts under Ralph Koltai. He is an associate designer of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Notable productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company include: Macbeth, The Comedy of Errors, King Lear, Once in a Lifetime, The Greeks, Nicholas Nickleby, Hedda Gabler, Peter Pan and Mother Courage.

His National Theatre designs include: The Party (Olivier’s last performance at the Old Vic), Equus, later seen worldwide, Trelawny of the ‘Wells’, An Enemy of the People, Peter Pan, Candide and South Pacific. Opera designs include Lohengrin and Macbeth (Royal Opera, Covent Garden), Idomeneo (Glyndebourne), The Devils (English National Opera) and Nabucco (Metropolitan Opera).

Musical theatre includes: Cats, Starlight Express, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon and Sunset Boulevard. These productions have been presented on Broadway and around the world. Other West End designs include: Time, Children of Eden and Jesus Christ Superstar. Napier created and co-directed the spectacular Siegfried & Roy Show at the Mirage in Las Vegas, followed by Steven Spielberg’s film Hook. Other designs include: Burning Blue (Haymarket, 1996 Olivier Award for Best Set Design), The Tower and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (both Almeida), Martin Guerre (West Yorkshire Playhouse and tour) and the musical version of Jane Eyre (Broadway). He recently designed Skellig (Young Vic), Aladdin (Old Vic) and Gone with the Wind (New London).

John Napier’s design awards include two Society of West End Theatre Awards, an Olivier, a BAFTA and five Tony Awards for Nicholas Nickleby, Cats, Starlight Express, Les Misérables and Sunset Boulevard. He is a member of the American Academy of Achievement, was elected Royal Designer for Industry in 1996 and is an Honorary Fellow of the London Institute.

[Text based on a biography published in the Les Miserables website]


Sunset Boulebard
John Napier's design for Sunset Boulevard presented in the Minskoff Theatre, New York.

Date: 1994
Photographer: Unknown ©John Napier and the Really Useful Group
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While the setting of the Paramount lot in particular seems to pastiche Robin Wagner’s work on 'City of Angels,' designer John Napier has boldly imagined Norma’s 10086 Sunset Boulevard as the kind of rococo mansion M.C. Escher might have drawn up for the Ottoman empire: winding staircases, columns, rich fabrics and the inevitable organ.   .   .

Review of the London production published in Variety by Matt Wolf.  July 13, 1993


Studio
John Napier's design for the studio in Sunset Boulevard presented in the Minskoff Theatre, New York.

Date: 1994
Photographer: Unknown ©John Napier and the Really Useful Group
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'The shows warmest reception was reserved for the set-designer John Napier… He said staging Sunset was "the hardest thing I've ever done"… For Sunset he decided the magnificent gothic-Victorian-baroque mansion inhabited by the ageing start, Norma Desmond, would be 'Hollywood Mad'. But how could he get there after a sequence involving a studio back-lot, a car chase and a deserted garage complete with vintage car?.... His coup lies in making the story's transitions -so easily done in the original 1950 film - work seamlessly on stage despite tons of fallible machinery and sliding pallets that shot off in the wrong directions at three times their normal speed in the technical rehearsals.'

Susannah Herbert, The Daily Telegraph, 4th July 1993

Sunset Boulevard: Boulevard Of Broken Dreams.

The mansion has landed.

Although the advance hype has been deafening and the backstage machinations have frequently threatened to eclipse those onstage, 'Sunset Boulevard,' Andrew Lloyd Webber's lurid new musical and extravaganza, officially took over the Minskoff Theater last night.

When it is good, it is outlandishly good. When it isn't, it is big. Both observations may be of secondary importance, however, since the musical allows Glenn Close to give one of those legendary performances people will be talking about years from now. As the film star Norma Desmond, a turbaned relic who considers herself the idol of millions, the actress takes breathtaking risks, venturing so far out on a limb at times that you fear it will snap. It doesn't.

The portrayal, as stylized in its way as the demon in a Kabuki play, is shrewd and hugely manipulative. Norma Desmond was not a luminary of the silent screen for nothing, and Ms. Close is not one of our finest actresses on instinct alone. They are a transfixing pair.

Whenever Ms. Close is offstage, in fact, 'Sunset Boulevard' loses much of the macabre originality that makes it a companion piece to 'The Phantom of the Opera.' Mr. Lloyd Webber and the director, Trevor Nunn, are no fools, though. The mundane patches are never permitted to last too long before a surge of melody or a stunning stage effect lifts the musical out of the commonplace and sets it back on its fateful course through the palm-fringed Hollywood night.   .    .  

There's no surprise in how this garish mating dance ends, since the very first of the amazing sights engineered by Mr. Nunn, John Napier, the set designer, and Andrew Bridge, the lighting designer, is that of Gillis's dead body floating face down in a murky swimming pool. What makes it amazing is that we're looking up at the corpse, viewing the splayed and waterlogged limbs from the vantage point of the drain. That, it turns out, is the perspective of the musical as a whole: the underbelly of Hollywood is to be poked, prodded and exposed.

Even Norma Desmond's palazzo, the second take-your-breath-away sight of the evening, is a nightmarish monument to claustrophobia and gilt. Its most prominent feature, if you exclude the forbidding pipe organ, is a majestic staircase that Ms. Close is constantly ascending and descending. Ever since Ziegfeld, stars and staircases have gone together, of course, but Ms. Close brilliantly uses each sweeping entrance and imperious exit to illuminate a deluded psyche. At the end, when Norma slithers down the stairs as Salome, posturing grotesquely in what is meant to be a sinuous dance of seduction, the transformation is complete. Ms. Close is by this point quite literally out of this world -- a supremely ridiculous, unbearably pathetic monster.

New York Times, Review by David Richards November 18, 1994

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Giovanni
John Napier's design for Mozart's 'Don Giovanni' presented by Welsh National Opera.   Directed by John Caird

Date: 2011
Photographer: Unknown ©John Napier and Welsh National Opera.

Director John Caird and his designer John Napier have set the piece in Spain’s Golden Age at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries with Italianate styling but the main artistic inspiration has been French sculptor Auguste Rodin, the creator of such well-known works as 'The Thinker' and 'The Kiss'.
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Don Giovanni at Welsh National Opera.

I can tot up viewings of at least 30 different stagings of 'Don Giovanni' in my critical career, and I don’t feel one of them has ever adequately addressed the implications of Mozart and da Ponte’s description of the piece as a 'dramma giocoso', the latter word meaning something like larky, playful or cheerful.

Modernists being what they are, today’s directors prefer to emphasise the doom and gloom, forgetting that what the creators intended was a blackly comic romp with emotionally serious episodes, not some profound existential statement.

To be fair, one cannot accuse John Caird’s new production for Welsh National Opera of pretension. Indeed, it seems devoid of any thoughtfulness at all, confining its originality to the introduction of a coven of cowled monks hovering banefully in the background and NHS specs for Elvira and Ottavio.

The designer John Napier presents the action in a courtyard decorated in heavy Spanish baroque style, with statuary making visual reference to Rodin’s tortured figures. Costumes are Goyaeqsue, the lighting levels Stygian. Two huge doors represent the Gates of Hell, through which Giovanni passes in a pathetically unimaginative presentation of the climax.

Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph, 19 Sep 2011

Director John Caird r explains his interpretation of Don Giovanni

Lohenrin
John Napier's design for Wagner's 'Lohengrin' presented
at the Royal Opera House. Covent Garden. Directed by Elijah Moshinsky with lighting by David Hersey.

Date: 1977
Photographer ©John Napier and Covent Garden.
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Nickelby3
The Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Nicholas Nickleby at the Aldwych Theatre: The Crummles Theatre Company in Romeo & Juliet, Act V with Sharon Bower, Teddy Kempner, Griff Jones, Julie Peasgood, Roger Rees, Tim Spall, Graham Crowden, Suzanne Bertish, Lila Kaye, Ben Kingsley, Andrew Hawkins, Stephen Rashbrook and Neil Phillips. Set design by John Napier.  Directed by Sir Trevor Nunn with lighting by David Hersey.

Date: 1980
Photographer: Chris Davies. ©Chris Davoes and RSC.
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Nickelby 4
The Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Nicholas Nickleby at the Aldwych Theatre: Dotheboys Hall.  Roger Rees as Nicholas, David Threlfall as Smike, Ben Kingsley as Squeers surrounded by Nicholas Gecks, Alan Gill, Mark Tandy & Ian East. Set design by John Napier.  Directed by Sir Trevor Nunn with lighting by David Hersey.

Date: 1980
Photographer: Chris Davies. ©Chris Davoes and RSC.
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Lohengrin

Elijah Moshinsky and his designer, John Napier, seem to me to have been outstandingly successful in articulating its ideas without violating its style. The set itself, a three sided box structure covered in white scrim and responding to every tint and blaze of David Hersey's lighting, offers and apt visual equivalent to the quite special luminosity that distinguishes this from all Wagner's other scores.

Bryan Northcott, The Sunday Telegraph
1st November 1977

 

 

 

 


The Nicholas Nickleby phenomenon: a Royal Shakespeare Company triumph remembered.

'The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby', one of the most successful productions in the RSC’s history, has rightly been marked with an event in the RSC’s programme celebrating 50 years of outstanding theatremaking.

 The adaptation of Charles Dickens’ comic novel opened in June 1980 at the Aldwych Theatre, initially for an eight-week run. The eight and a half hour two-part production became a sellout, playing for two more seasons at the Aldwych, then being filmed at the Old Vic before transferring to Broadway from September 1981-January 1982. The filmed version was shown as the first major drama broadcast on Channel 4.

.   .    .    I’d always loved Dickens as well as Shakespeare and found the combination irresistible. I went to the very first all-day performance, and saw each version at least twice, attending all three of the last nights at the Aldwych.  On Sunday several of the original members of cast got together again: Christopher Benjamin, Suzanne Bertish, Janet Dale, Patrick Godfrey, Julie Peasgood, Edward Petherbridge, Emily Richard, Timothy Spall and David Threlfall, as well as co-director John Caird, adapter David Edgar and designer John Napier. A group of five musicians performed some of Stephen Oliver’s original music and the actors performed some scenes from the production interspersed with film clips and reminiscences.

 This triumph was born out of near-disaster. John Caird explained how the RSC was faced with a drastic cut in Arts Council funding at the end of 1979. Instead of putting on two or three new productions in London in 1980 Trevor Nunn decided to put all the company’s available resources into one spectacular production. They may have been short of money, but they weren’t short of talented actors who were already used to working together and other creative people happy to improvise. The rehearsal period began in November in Stratford with a five-week workshop period. Each actor précised a chapter of the book, and researched an aspect of Victorian life. Only at the end of this period were parts allocated.

 David Edgar had been commissioned to adapt the novel. .   .   .  He was able to add some interweaving of his own: rehearsals for the Crummles theatrical company’s production of Romeo and Juliet were cross-cut with real dramas. Juliet’s distress at being cast off by her parents when she refused to marry their choice of suitor was alternated with scenes showing Kate Nickleby’s helplessness at being pursued by the sinister Sir Mulberry Hawk (played memorably by the late Bob Peck). Smike, cast as the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet, heartbreakingly repeated his line 'Who calls so loud', when dying in Nicholas’s arms.

Sylvia Morris, September 6, 2011


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