discovering the toone theatre in brussels: part one

Above: Harlequin greets vistors to the Toone Theatre.

One of the highlights of our recent trip to Brussels was visiting the Toone Theatre. We attended two performances there, both of them The Passion, but as the first version had been a condensed one, we went back later for the full experience. Dave was given permission to take photographs during the performance, and did so without using a flash in the low lighting conditions. (Just so that you know that we did ask first!) Although the visits were principally because Philippa and I were so enormously keen, Dave too hugely enjoyed the experience of the place and the performances, and I heartily thank him for taking the photographs posted here, because my own pocket camera was quite inadequate to the job. Peter too enjoyed the experience of the Toone, though didn’t attend the second performance with us because he was in the throes of a nasty cold!

The theatre is above a ‘tavern’ that looks as though it hasn’t changed much in the past hundred years. It’s approached down a narrow passage off a busy alley densely lined with cafés and restaurants. (Brussels is fantastically served for eating-places, and restaurateurs in the food quarter importune passers-by… often with great charm… to step into their establishments.) Once safely past this and at your destination, the Toone is a labyrinth of delights. In a small back room a stage is set up with puppets on display.

The walls are lined with vintage posters of past productions, and everywhere there are shelves of puppet ephemera and puppets too, retired from performance and put up for show.

Above: I made drawings of this fine fellow in checks and red stockings, and it was he who later transformed somehow into my Joseph for The Soldier’s Tale.

Above: drawing made of the Toone puppet…

… and the maquette it became.

Above: a magnificent knight on horseback hangs over the fireplace in a bar.

Before performances the door to the theatre is unlocked and visitors can ascend to the first-floor ‘museum’ of Toone marionettes in a small bar where drinks are served at interval time. You could have locked me in that room for the duration of our holiday and I would have been perfectly happy.

Tomorrow I shall post images of the play we attended, full of knock-about comedy, an archangel resplendent in armour, cunning priests, a scythe-wielding ‘Death’ and sprightly cavorting demons. Everything one could want from a production of The Passion!

10 thoughts on “discovering the toone theatre in brussels: part one

  1. Pingback: Puppet Catch-up: Clive’s Posts | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  2. Pingback: discovering the toone theatre in brussels part three: the performance | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

    • The puppet heads have a simplicity that works extremely well within the conventions of the art form. And yes, they do seem like ‘real’ people, especially in performance, where the energy of the puppeteers transmits directly to the ‘pupi’.

  3. Scrumptious! I enjoyed every inch of this post and look forward to more.

    What Anita said about benevolent expression is interesting. I suppose that’s in part because the moustaches are smiling, even when the mouth is not.

  4. Wonderful snapshots! Thanks, Dave! Love, love, love the looks of this place. I am pondering the “benevolent” countenances of the knights and other figures… I think it’s a combination of the wide, unlidded eyes and the upturned mustaches that make them seem so. And thus, this gesture has transferred to your soldier.

  5. What an amazing place, the puppets look quite ancient. The disembodied heads are decidedly uncanny. I have the impression puppetry is quite strong in Belgium, more than one of the companies at our recent festival were from there. Look forward to seeing more!

    • Lucy, there is indeed a tradition of puppetry in Brussels. Not as strong now as it once was, but it’s telling that the Toone has adapted to change and has survived intact. Puppetry had to evolve in order to hold its place in popular culture. It’s not enough that survivals from the past hold out to show us what historic puppet productions were like, as all art forms need to evolve and reinvent themselves for contemporary audiences. Puppetry has undergone an enormous surge in popularity among performers and designers in recent years, and the magnificent creations of Royal de Luxe and the genius of puppet-building and performance underpinning Warhorse, are testimonies to fresh life coursing through old veins and winning new audiences.

      But it’s good too, to honour the past traditions from which all this has sprung, and once again I commend the book Popular Puppet Theatre in Europe, 1800 – 1914 by John McCormick and Bennie Pratasik. I’ve found no better history of the puppet theatres that were once an everyday part of European life, whether in purpose-built auditoria, ‘pop-up’ theatres erected in domestic living-rooms, taverns and civic halls, or in booths at fairs and public gatherings. Entertaining and scholarly, and I highly commend it.

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