Though his claims are urban and his heritage working-class London, John Napier has the lean, craggy look of a Welsh coal miner. Only the dark eyes--wide and deep, with a look of perpetual slight surprise--reveal a sensitive intelligence under pressure.
Otherwise, there is nothing of the aesthete in Napier's casual manner or his informal dress.
"I am a non-aesthetic designer," he asserted, letting his English tea get cold and edgily lighting up another in a chain of cigarettes.
"My aesthetics come out of the rational," he said, on a break from supervising the installation of his spectacular environmental setting for "Cats," opening at the Shubert Friday. "They come from the solutions. I tend to work from the inside out. I have the reputation for making colossi, but I can only say in my own defense that for everything I've ever done there's been a series of reasons.
"Everything (I put on stage) is utilized--and not to make pictorial statements. 'Cats' is fairly monumental, but 'Cats' is whimsy. It's full of detail. And the interest for me is in creating that world.
"In the very early stages, there was no book," Napier said about the super hit based on T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and direction by Trevor Nunn. "Just Eliot's poems in a random order. Andrew'd worked on them as an idea for a small children's production. Trevor was asked to become involved, then I was asked, because we'd worked together.
"It sounded ludicrous. We were talking about putting cats on stage. We knew everyone in London would think 'they're crazy!' Especially after just having done 'Nicholas Nickleby.' And I'd just done 'The Greeks' and a season of Shakespeare. So we started talking and Trevor said, 'Look, you've got to come up with something that's fun. Not cliche. Not proscenium."
Napier took Nunn at his word, providing a scaled-up garbage dump where all the objects are proportionately as large as they would seem to cats. That wasn't just a good idea; it had the virtue of reawakening playfulness in adult audiences to whom these objects look like oversized toys.
"To limit oneself to a performance area that represented naturalistically a rooftop at midnight, or an alley, would not have had enough possibilities," he said. "And then we came to the general conclusion that it should be a place where human detritus had been littered. Just making giant objects pulls the rug out from anyone taking it all too seriously."
In two decades of professional life, Napier has designed such landmark productions as "Equus," "Nickleby" and the current London hit "Starlight Express." And in spite of beginnings as a fine arts student and early pretensions to becoming a sculptor, he's known less for his sculpture than his sheer razzmatazz. This is one scenic designer who's made it on seat-of-the-pants imagination far more than methodology, despite his own assertion that "you don't start in a vacuum. The most successful theater designers have been architects or painters or sculptors.
"I took a course in set design," he confessed, "but that was after five years of being a sculptor.
"What (theater design) requires is a practical application of ideas and a pragmatic view of what is possible to do in a certain space. One has to be sure the ideas will work, but then there's a backup of engineers and people who'll work out weight-loading and systems.
"A lot of people say about the work that I do that it's kind of high-risk. A bit over the top. That it has tendencies toward engineering peculiarities. But I have confidence in what I do, primarily because, as a sculptor, I learned a lot about matter--wood, stone, materials. Tactile things. I work with a model in a tactile way. Then I confer with engineers and say 'How practical do you think this is? How can we achieve that effect?'
"In the main, I rely on a series of people I know and trust, who understand what I'm trying to achieve. My main obsession is to keep things absolutely fail-safe. You want to stretch boundaries, but be aware of vulnerabilities."
As for making the transition from sculptor to set designer, "There's a working-class ethic that's in me," he said. "I can't help it. Sometimes I felt that to be in a studio, on my own, in isolation, was a bit dilettantish. At the same time, when I was a sculpture student in the early '60s, things were becoming very radical. There were things coming along like happenings, conceptual things, rooms . . . All the pieces I'd ever done always had some kind of bizarre theatrical intention behind them. They'd always been slightly off the wall."
Then Napier saw a couple of shows designed by Ralph Kolti (who did the Royal Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Cyrano," featured at the Olympic Arts Festival) and was struck by their originality. It changed him.