Ghibli’s My Neighbour Totoro returns to Barbican: director interview

The blockbuster production of My Neighbour Totoro returns to the Barbican this month after receiving rapturous reviews  last year. We caught up with director Phelim McDermott to ask what’s new.

How was it returning to Totoro?

It’s strange – the first time round you don’t know what you’ve got, you just hope it’s good. There’s a kind of adrenaline to that, a first time excitement. Then audiences came and seemed to enjoy it. It’s different the second time – in a way it’s just as challenging because you have to live up to something that already exists.

This time, half the cast are new and half did the show before. So there’s a good combination of people who know how to do it from the first time and people who are excited to do it for the first time. There’s also the problem that you forget how you made something work and have to figure it out all over again!

It never quite comes together until the live music is played, though. Joe Hisaishi’s music is so beautiful. I met Joe through Philip Glass – he told me ‘I’ve got a friend, and he wants to talk to you about a show he wants to make.’ They’re both elders, people who’ve had extraordinary careers, they’re my heroes in a way, because their music is so influential. Joe is to Studio Ghibli what John Williams is to Spielberg – you can’t imagine what their films would be like without their music. They’re both as brilliant as each other.

Is there anything new this time?

Yes, there are things we had time to work on that we didn’t to do last time, so that’s been exciting. I don’t want to spoil anything but there’s a new and improved Catbus journey with a surprise at the end.

What’s your history with Ghibli?

I knew a fair few of the films. Interestingly, I didn’t know my Neighbour Totoro until I was approached to work on the stage production. I watched it for the first time with my children, who were around seven at the time. I was worried they would get bored but they became obsessed with it. So I knew I had to make it good enough for my kids, otherwise I’d be in trouble.

For me, the main thing was to keep the spirit of the film. What I loved about the film was its beautiful, slow pace. It knew when it needed to take its time to show nature and to bring out the atmosphere of the environment. So for me, that was the key to recapturing the spirit. I knew right away I didn’t want to turn it into a musical – there were things that would need to be adapted to make it work but there was an essence that needed to stay the same.

Did you feel a weight of responsibility?

One of our puppeteers is doing his first show in the UK and he told me that Totoro was the first film he was taken to see by his parents – this film means so much to people! We went in knowing we had to make sure that people weren’t disappointed. There are certain key moments in the film that, if we didn’t deliver them, people would feel like they’d missed out. So that was on my mind. It’s tricky though – someone could be sat there with their child on one side and their grandmother on the other and you have to make sure they all enjoy the show.

But there comes a point where you have to trust your instincts, otherwise you just freeze. You have to keep coming back to your own sense of what excites you. 

Do you have much experience working with puppets?

For my first rep theatre show in 1987 I did an adaptation of a Leon Garfield story called Ghosts Downstairs. In that story, there was a ghost of a little boy and we used a puppet. I’ve been playing with puppets ever since. I did a stage adaptation of Shockheaded Peter that used puppets too. Puppets have been part of my life – once you start playing with them, they never let you go. I keep trying to escape them, but they keep coming back.

Any talk of more Ghibli adaptations?

I haven’t been approached about anything yet. But I think that’s mainly because we’re still at the beginning with Totoro – I hope it has more life in it yet. One of my dreams is that we get to do it in Tokyo. Nothing is certain, of course – in the end I think it will be Totoro who decides.

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