discovering the toone theatre in brussels part three: the performance


Sit close enough to the stage at the the Toone, and the puppeteers are clearly visible as they work. This is a great treat for an ex-puppeteer and puppet aficionado like me, because I love the choreography of manipulation above the scene quite as much as the performance down below. No matter that the cogs and wheels of the mechanism are present… that great engine powering the action… because twixt the human hands and the wooden ‘pupi’ a powerful performance magic comes into play, and life is sparked that’s independent of outside agency. The dolls live.

Something complex happens in the brains of viewers attending a puppet show like this, an illusion helped by perspective and the fact that the audience are in a darkened auditorium watching a brightly illuminated stage. For those sitting far enough away from the action for the puppeteers to be out of sight, the eyes somehow adjust and after a while the overwhelming impression is that the wooden actors, which in reality are about three feet high, are life-size. So successful is this ‘adjustment’ that when the occasional operator-hand drops into view, it’s as though giants from on high  are invading the stage, and the jolt of being pulled back to the real world can be jarring.

This was a skilled team of puppeteers. Two of them possessed exceptionally long, lean and flexible hands… remember, the puppets are very heavy… that were mesmerising to watch. Although operators are principally responsible for a single character in any one scene, the comings and goings of a substantial cast require controls often having to be passed swiftly to another puppeteer to free hands for the entrance of an additional puppet or to facilitate a bit of business elsewhere, and these transitions were flawless on the two evenings we attended.

And so I sat happily entranced, my own brain performing the strangest trick of all, because I found I could watch both the puppets on the stage and the puppeteers above it, and believe that both worlds were real.

Just occasionally a bit of anarchy breaks out… appropriate in a puppet show when you can’t be quite sure who’s working who… and on the second night we attended, in a scene during which an off-stage mob threw missiles at the palace windows of Pontius Pilate, heavy wooden building-blocks flew off the stage and at the audience, only just missing us! Puppets can be very naughty!

Parts One and Two of Discovering the Toone Theatre may be found HERE and HERE.

9 thoughts on “discovering the toone theatre in brussels part three: the performance

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

  2. Pingback: a guide to puppetry 3: the marionette – part one | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  3. If I couldn’t be there, this is almost as good as. Thanks for sharing all this, and I get the scale adjustment that must happen to the audience, just from seeing the photos, and also your description of how it felt. I would love to visit this place if I ever go to Bruges.

    • Ah ha, quite right. Don’t go to Bruges looking for the Toone. And if you should ever take the trip to Brussels, check that there are performances on for the time you’re there.

      Very soon I’ll be posting images of puppets taken by my friend Enza on a trip to visit her family in Sicily. The marionettes of Palermo are justly famous, and are next on my hit-list of must-see-before-I-die! Enza’s photographs show puppets that are extraordinary! The craftsmanship beggars belief.

  4. Although I too have always loved puppets, masks, puppeteers and animatronics. I found when seeing the humans in War Horse initially that I maybe had made a mistake going to see such a performance …. I thought I would be distracted … but within a few seconds I was transported by the beauty and seamless artistry ….. all was enhanced … magical! You have inspired me to visit this beautiful theatre. Thankyou Clive.

    • Lyn, be sure to check the Toone Website for performance details. You wouldn’t want to go to Brussels and find the visit didn’t coincide with a show!

      I loved the sheer knockabout energy and vulgarity of the marionettes. It’s not elegant puppetry of the kind you see at performances of the Salzburg Marionettes, but shows at the Toone fizz with life, and we all loved our experiences there. Be sure to see the little bar/museum in the interval, packed with old puppets!

    • Oh I agree Lyn, Lion King was one I thought I might feel the same as you when you went to see War Horse but again the puppets and animal characters were ‘real’ within seconds. I am lost to the scene as soon as the curtain rises and it makes no difference even though I worked backstage for many years in costume, the magic is still there – every time – thank goodness.

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