Tom Morton-Smith is the writer who adapted Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbour Totoro for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). He is also well-known for his plays Oppenheimer and The Earthworks, the latter of which originally played as part of the RSC’s Mischief Festival in 2017. Earthworks will also play at the Young Vic later this year.
STARBURST: Why Studio Ghibli?
Tom Morton-Smith: I’ve been in love with their work for so long. Not only are they visually stunning, but they often tap into powerful, deep-rooted emotions. A story such as My Neighbour Totoro is deceptively simple and joyous, but there is a pain at the heart of it – the illness of a parent and the pressures that it puts on a family. The grief of learning that your mum and dad are mortal is as universal as you can get – that the film handles such a delicate subject with such verve and imagination is a marvel. Yes, there are fantastical creatures, but they are warm, protective, and empathetic. Ghibli makes movies that hold you close as they entertain you, and that’s everything I want to do with my work.
Why the RSC?
When a company’s bread-and-butter is Shakespeare, they understand epic theatrical storytelling like no other. Through As You Like It and A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, the ‘wild wood’ holds an important place in the Shakespearean canon, and spirits, sprites, and magic appear repeatedly – …Dream, The Tempest, Macbeth,etc. Because of that, My Neighbour Totoro sits very comfortably within the world of the RSC. This is also a company whose biggest successes have been stage adaptations of major non-theatrical works – Nicholas Nickleby, Les Misérables, Matilda The Musical – I can’t think of anyone else I’d trust to drive the Catbus!
What was the hardest part of My Neighbour Totoro to adapt?
So much of the film is in the atmosphere it conjures. I knew that if I could capture something close to that atmosphere, then the production would work, no matter what form the spirits and creatures took. But of course, the way that atmosphere works on stage is very different to the way it does in an animated film. So, trying to remain true to that sense of place and all of the feelings that the images evoke, but using an entirely different set of tools, was pretty tricky.
What considerations do you have to make for modern audiences with this adaptation?
Honestly, hardly any. The film was released in 1988 but set in 1955 – it was already a period piece – so there was no need to do too much in that regard.
In broader terms, what does the stage do better than animation?
There’s obviously a liveness to theatre that you can’t get anywhere else. You are watching actors and stage crew create the show in front of you – specifically for you. No other audience will see exactly what you see on the night you go. It was important to us that we leaned heavily on that liveness – that you can see the puppeteers as they bring Totoro to life, as they turn a piece of paper into a butterfly, or how they articulate all twelve legs of a full-size Catbus. It’s like showing the workings of a magic trick and not relying too heavily on technology so that the kids in the audience go home understanding how we made the show and that – given the chance – they could too.
What can we expect to see in the remounting of The Earthworks?
The Earthworks works on a much smaller scale than My Neighbour Totoro. It’s two strangers meeting in a hotel bar, getting a bit drunk, pestering a famous scientist, having a custard fight, and opening their hearts to each other. It’s gentle and a bit sad – so in that sense, it has some commonality with Totoro. But it’s funny, too. It’s one of my favourite things I’ve written, and I’m thrilled that more people will get to see it. And at the Young Vic, which is a theatre I love.
How different is creating a stage play from a screenplay?
There’s a freedom to write for the stage. When writing a screenplay, you have to consider what genre the film sits in, and with that comes rules and expectations. That doesn’t mean you can’t subvert those; it just means there is something to push against. Genre is a brilliant shorthand to have with a movie audience – put a man in a hat on a horse in the desert, and you have a Western – whereas, in theatre, you can be a bit more freeform, but it requires a little more explanation as to where and when everything is happening. As both a theatre nerd and a movie buff, I love both ways of working.
What is your favourite part of the production?
How can I pick?! The moment when the soot sprites leave the house. The first time we reveal Totoro. Kanta and his chickens. The iconic bus stop scene and the audience’s gasp when the Catbus arrives. But if I’m honest, my favourite moment is the last scene – at the hospital between the father, Tatsuo, and the mother,Yasuko.
How hard was it to put Catbus on the stage?
There was a lot of experimentation with the Catbus – in terms of its size, material, and mechanics of it. There was one puppetry workshop where we built a new Catbus every day for five days. He’s a big boy and an incredible piece of engineering. It takes eleven puppeteers to bring him to life every night, and it is demanding physical work. But for me, it wasn’t hard at all, I just wrote: ‘CATBUS enters.’
What other anime would you like to adapt? What other children’s stories would you like to work on?
I’d like to see some Satoshi Kon on stage – I think Paprika would work incredibly well. Or maybe Hosoda’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Closer to home, I’ve often thought of rewriting The Wind in the Willows from the weasels’ point of view, taking over Toad Hall as an act of a working-class rebellion.
If you could give your 16-year-old self any piece of advice, what would it be?
Don’t care so much about what other people are thinking.
If you could see a stage play again – by perhaps travelling back in time – what would it be and why?
I remember being completely transported by Mnemonic by Complicité theatre company in 2003. The way that it weaved multiple narratives and spanned continents and centuries – and trusted the audience to see the patterns and links between its many disparate parts – was so galvanising and has stayed with me ever since.
What’s next for you?
When the theatres closed during the pandemic, I started to shift my focus more towards screenwriting. I have several feature films and a TV show in quite advanced stages of development. So, I guess we’ll see where all of that goes.
Doctor Who or Dr No?
The Bond films were very formative for me. They were constantly on TV when I was growing up, and whenever a new one came out, there would be a big family trip to the cinema to see it. The gadgets and the puns and the ridiculous rogues’ gallery. So I’ll say Dr No.
Dragons or Deathstars?
As a Trekkie, I am loathed to say ‘deathstars’, but I would generally always choose science fiction over fantasy.
Truth or Beauty?
A little from column A and a little from column B.
My Neighbour Totoro plays at the Barbican Centre until March 23rd. Tickets are available via the Barbican Box Office. https://www.rsc.org.uk/
Earthworks is at the Young Vic from March 26th – April 6th. www.youngvic.org