“I like impossible direction,” says Tom Morton-Smith with a wide grin. The playwright’s previous head-scratchers for creative teams included a nuclear explosion (Oppenheimer) and an instruction to explain the concept of mass using a custard fight (the earthworks).
With his last show he is on his feet. My Neighbor Totoro, based on Studio Ghibli’s beloved 1988 Japanese animation fantasy film, is packed with incredible moments. There is something magical about two little girls, Satsuki and Mei, who move to the countryside with their father to be with their recovering mother. They encounter mysterious beasts and strange happenings. There’s a giant furry cat bus flying through the air; a huge tree that shoots out of the ground at night; multiple soot sprites blasting through the house. And, most spectacularly, the discovery of Totoro: a huge, benign and round spirit who is the ancient protector of the forest. That’s a lot of impossible stage directions.
It is also a big challenge for the writer himself. Hailed as a masterpiece by many reviewers, Hayao Miyazaki’s original film is so popular that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new stage premiere, produced with film composer Joe Hisaishi, broke the Barbican’s box office records when tickets went on sale. The soft beauty of the film lies not only in its superb animation, but also in the quiet sympathy with which it enters the world of the two sisters, especially the four-year-old Mei, who awakens a small child’s curiosity about the world and the creatures that she encounters.
“What I love about the movie is the stillness, the softness,” says Morton-Smith. “All the characters are good, there are no villains, they are just good people who deal with circumstances. And [I love] like the movie evokes atmospheres that you can just live in for a while, whether it’s following a snail crawling against a plant or a frog next to a pond.”
On screen, that gentle pace is mesmerizing. But isn’t it the antithesis of theatre? Doesn’t live drama thrive on plot, conflict and intrigue? Morton-Smith admits it’s challenging to adapt what’s essentially “not a plot-driven piece” to a new medium while preserving its spirit: “It’s disheartening because it’s a beloved movie and it’s so beautifully made, but it has to be its own thing on stage.”
He describes his task as “translating as well as adapting”. He expanded several scenes, brought out some characters and increased the dialogue. But he adds that while the story doesn’t live up to conventional expectations, it does have defined sections and a narrative journey.
Morton-Smith and the creative team were determined to find a way to celebrate the film’s meditative atmosphere. “There’s still a plot — it’s just not what you’d expect. And I love that it doesn’t align with what we’d say as traditional beats: that you can have moments where grandma just talks about picking vegetables Theater does an incredible job of creating atmosphere, but don’t let the audience sit in it often.”
Finding a theatrical language for this delicate story meant assembling a strong international team. Hisaishi has been closely involved and his original score will be played live. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop builds the dolls, designed by Basil Twist, and directs Phelim McDermott, an expert in improvisation and puck-like inventions. The show is produced in collaboration with the English theater company Improbable and the Japanese Nippon TV.
“It’s unlike any project I’ve ever worked on,” says Morton-Smith. “We have huge teams working on this – puppeteers, puppeteers, music, decor. It’s a really huge project, but it has to feel graceful on stage.”
To that end, all elements of the show have been integrated from the start. Large parts of the set have been all over the rehearsal room, turning the RSC’s studio theater into a puppet studio to develop the puppets alongside the action.
“The script wasn’t brought into the room until the second week,” says Morton-Smith. “So it feels like a very organic process. But there is no other way: everything has to come to the boil at the same time.”
Puppetry has recently come of age on the British stage and My Neighbor Totoro sequel to hits like the National Theater’s warhorse, Are dark materials and The ocean at the end of the laneas well as RSC’s 2021 show The Wizard’s Elephantwho had a life-size pachyderm. Earlier this year, the seven puppeteers who manipulate the tiger… The life of Pi jointly won Best Supporting Actor at the Olivier Awards.
That award was a turning point, recognizing not only the skill in puppetry, but how integral it is to the drama. In Totorowill help the puppets recreate some of the magical moments from the movie, but they are also central to the role of imagination in the story.
Puppets build on that childlike ability to make objects come to life through play. In totoro, the transformative power of a child’s imagination fuses with the ancient Japanese belief in animism: the understanding that objects, places, and beings possess a spiritual essence.
“There’s an overlap in the way the puppeteers think and the traditional Japanese ideas about animism,” Morton-Smith says. “And a puppet comes to life not only through the movements of the puppeteers, but also through the audience that imbues it with life. . .
“It is very important for our Japanese producers that the children [onstage] can see the magic, but none of the adult characters can. But we in the audience get to see it because it invites us to be children.”
Like all good fairy tales, My Neighbor Totoro operates on several levels. For kids, it might just be a magical story; adults will see environmental messages and metaphors about coping with change and illness. But for Morton-Smith, it’s important not to explain what’s wrong with the mother or explain too much: we see the situation through the eyes of the children.
“There are different ways you can read it and I think it depends on how old you are and what your life experience is when you get to it,” he says. “For very young children, they are truly magical creatures. . . for older children there is the coming-of-age story and the worries about taking responsibility and growing up. And for adults, the creatures are children’s way of dealing with things. That’s what makes the movie, and hopefully the play, so moving for the adults who watch it.
“I started working on it before the pandemic,” adds Morton-Smith. “But suddenly the themes of these very young children coming to terms with their mother’s illness and the idea of mortality took a different turn. And its messages – of gentleness, of kinship with nature, of parents trying their best under difficult circumstances – it feels like that’s kind of necessary now.”
Barbican Theatre, London, October 8 – January 21 barbican.org.uk
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