Fan of Studio Ghibli? So is Mei Mac. She’s now the lead in the RSC’s charming and magical adaptation of the children’s classic, My Neighbour Totoro, playing the adventurous four year old from the film who shares her name, Mei. Tessa Dunthorne sits down to chat with the actor-puppeteer about this astonishing production.
Mei Mac as photographed by David Reiss, styling credits below.
What can audiences expect from Totoro?
An absolutely magical and beautiful theatre show. We are absolutely staying true to the essence of the original film but breathing new life into it in a way only live theatre can. I really believe audiences will leave the Barbican with their imaginations sparked alight and we cannot wait to share the magic with you. There are ridiculously huge elements coming together with everyone in the team working at the top of their craft, pouring their hearts and souls into it. The live music and singing is already spine tingling, and that’s before you’ve seen the beautiful ensemble work. The puppetry is truly jaw dropping and the stunning design will take you right into Totoro’s world. Prepare yourself to gasp in amazement and bring tissues for those tears…
Were you a fan of the film beforehand?
Oh absolutely. I grew up on Ghibli my entire childhood and adult life. Ghibli has been and still is a huge part of my imagination and how I view the world. What I love about Ghibli is how there aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters, just nuanced characters trying to do what they think is best. Princess Mononoke is my absolute favourite Ghibli and Lady Eboshi is the perfect example of this. What I love about My Neighbour Totoro is that alongside the utter joy and beauty of the film, it’s ultimately about experiencing grief and loss in childhood and both are so vulnerably human.
Tell us more about the puppetry!
I cannot wait for you all to see the puppetry. I’ve seen these puppets so many times in rehearsal and even now, they still make me squeal and then take my breath away. Basil Twist, The Jim Henson Company, Mervyn Miller and all the puppet makers have created something quite extraordinary. But there’s nothing like watching the incredibly talented ensemble of puppeteers breathe life, personality, fear, humour and cuteness into these majestic creatures. You will fall in love.
What’s it been like working with Nippon TV, Improbable & the RSC?
An absolute dream come true. I worked with Nippon TV almost a decade ago on the stage adaptation of Princess Mononoke with Whole Hog Theatre so it’s wonderful to be working with them again on another Ghibli. I have been a huge fan of our director, Phelim McDermott’s work, so it’s a real privilege to be working with him and Improbable. The company’s ‘Open Space’ ethos is truly radical and it’s something I want to spread – so if you’re curious, do look it up! Working with the RSC is almost every theatremaker’s dream and we have been welcomed with warm hearts and open arms. It’s also so powerful to see so many artists of BESEA heritage (British East and South East Asian) at an institution like the RSC and certainly feels like we’re making history.
And then quickfire – Mei Mac, please tell us about your cultural influences right now!
I’m tuning into… The Sandman by Neil Gaiman
What I’m reading… Dear Girls by Ali Wong. Hilarious
The last thing I watched was… The BBC’s This is Going to Hurt and A24’s Zola
Play I last loved… I, Joan at the Globe Theatre by Charlie Josephine
Favourite painting… Not quite paintings, but I’m a big fan of Grayson Perry and his tapestry series ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’
Favourite film of all time… Everything Everywhere All At Once and Micmacs
Band/singer I always have on repeat… H.E.R and Jamie Cullum
My ultimate cultural recommendation… Go to the theatre. Support your local ones, see small shows as well as the big ones. There’s nothing quite like live theatre!
Cultural guilty pleasure…
Chinatown. Food is culture for me, but I have absolutely no guilt about it. None whatsoever. Read our guide to the best Dim Sum in London here.
My Neighbour Totoro runs at the Barbican until 21 Jan 2023. Book here to see Mei in action – while the run is sold out, a limited number of day tickets appear on the site everyday from 10AM.
Photo credits: photography by David Reiss; styling by Harriet Nicolson; hair by Shukeel Murtaza; and makeup by Snowkei Lan.