Cover Mei Mac (Image: courtesy of David Reiss)

Mei Mac has landed the lead role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new stage adaption of Studio Ghibli's much-loved movie. To her, this recognition means a chance to spotlight Asian talents and stories

Mei Mac’s latest role is a dream come true: Mei Kusakabe, the lead role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage adaptation of one of her childhood favourites, Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 animation My Neighbour Totoro. The production, which features new orchestrations of Joe Hisaishi’s original score and has taken seven years to put together, will have its global premiere this month at the Barbican in London.

The British actress believes the production couldn’t have come at a better time: for more than two years, the pandemic has plagued the world with grief and loss—themes that are also prevalent in Totoro, which portrays post-Second World War rural Japan through the eyes of two children whose mother is ill.

Mac, who turned 30 in July, now finds the animation a bittersweet experience. She remembers her excitement the first time she watched the film and saw the young sisters Mei and Satsuki planting the giant camphor trees. But as an adult rewatching the film today, she now sees mushroom clouds, the war and the strife that Japan experienced.

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In her decade of professional performing, Mac has appeared in theatre productions such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Wolf Totem, and a number of television productions. But Miyazaki’s work has a special place in her heart: her theatrical debut was the title role in the 2013 adaptation of Princess Mononoke by the UK’s Whole Hog Theatre. “Lots of shows are just about entertainment, but those that set my soul on fire are the ones which we’re doing for a reason,” she says.

Princess Mononoke and Totoro, both products of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, serve exactly that purpose: inspiring people to reconnect with part of themselves, their community, nature or something greater than any one individual. The former, an ecological fable, is about navigating the complex relationship between man and nature; the latter celebrates community and finding meaning in the little things in everyday life. Mac recalls that when Hisaishi came in to talk about his dream that the staged Totoro would celebrate the mundane, she and the creative team “were all so onboard to serve this dream”, seeing it as a privilege to use their skills to create an enlightening experience and message for an audience.

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To Mac, staging this story at the Barbican Centre—Europe’s largest performing arts venue—doesn’t only mean bringing Japanese history to a western audience. The production team is international: Hisaishi, the composer and one of the producers, is Japanese, as is costume designer Kimie Nakano; the cast are East and Southeast Asians, with more than half having Japanese heritage; the director Phelim McDermott is British; while the Jim Henson puppet team is from the US. Mac herself is a Hongkonger who was born and raised in the UK, while her family is based mostly in Hong Kong, but also southern China.

Mac says that the group having connections beyond British culture is vital to honouring the essence of the work. The creative team and performing company have regular conversations about even the tiniest artistic choices or linguistic decisions that can have a huge cultural impact. For instance, instead of calling Satsuki by her name, as siblings in western cultures typically do, Mei addresses Satsuki as onee-chan, which is Japanese for “big sister”—a way of showing respect, which is so important across Asian culture. But Mac says these moments of Japanese language in the mostly English-language play will not alienate non-Japanese speakers. “The heart of Ghibli’s work isn’t just the words, which is only five per cent of communication, [but] the body language, atmosphere and a sense of the essence [of Japanese culture]”.

Mac didn’t experience such levels of inclusiveness when she first started working in the performing arts industry in the UK a decade ago. She didn’t feel like “there was enough work out there for people who looked like me or the ‘global majority’,” a term which, she explains, has recently been adopted in the UK to replace Bame (Black, Asian and minority ethnic). “It wasn’t a really useful term because it grouped everyone [non-white] together like a monolith,” she says. Despite her classical training, she has often encountered the assumption that she wouldn’t understand or be able to perform anything in the western literary canon because she’s not white. And some experiences have been nothing short of racist: at one audition, she was asked to make her accent “more Asian”. “I was like, ‘Absolutely; would you like [that to be] Bangladeshi or Cantonese?’” Mac recalls. “And they were like, ‘What’s your native accent?’ And I said, ‘Birmingham.’”

Outside Totoro, the actress has been facilitating change with Rising Waves, a mentorship programme she co-founded in January 2021, which helps emerging British artists of East and Southeast Asian heritage build their careers by pairing them with established artists. Benedict Wong serves as the patron while Gemma Chan and Game of Thrones actor Jessica Henwick have also been the vocal supporters of the initiative. The project was inspired by a survey conducted by members of the performing arts industry during the pandemic; it found that early-career artists are the most diverse across gender, sexuality, disability, neurodiversity and race, but among mid-career performers, diversity plummets.

“If you don’t have inherited wealth and you don’t have parents who work in the arts, it’s very hard to sustain yourself in this industry,” Mac explains. The actress knows this from personal experience: she would have studied medicine at university—a stable and successful career pathway in the eyes of traditional Asian families—if she hadn’t met Kumiko Mendl, the artistic director of New Earth Theatre, who showed the then 16-year-old that her passion for the arts could lead to viable career options.

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New Earth Theatre, where Mac is now an associate, puts on shows that celebrate East and Southeast Asian stories. In September, it premiered The Apology, a play about Korean “comfort women” during the Second World War and the subsequent political cover-up, at East London’s Arcola Theatre. Mac says this is the kind of story that is a part of East Asian history but doesn’t get the time that it deserves in British culture. “This whole country is built on the backs of immigrants. So it feels very important that we honour the history of our people and the contributions that we have made to this country,” she says.

 

And although Mac didn’t become a doctor, her ambition to heal and make a difference in the world hasn’t changed. “A friend who is a doctor said to me, ‘There’s no point in us saving people’s lives or helping people to live longer, if they’ve got nothing to live for. And that where the power of the arts comes in.’

“Being a doctor and being an artist: they don’t feel like a million miles away from each other because it’s about humanity. And that’s what I’m drawn to, ultimately.”

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