philippa and the toone puppets

Above: drawing in progress by Philippa Robbins of marionettes from the Toone Theatre.

I’m not the only one who found inspiration at the Toone Theatre on our recent trip to Brussels. I returned home fired by the idea of borrowing on the simple carved faces of the Toone puppets in order to create the character of Joseph for The Soldier’s Tale.

From Toone puppet…

… to a drawing of a Toone puppet in my notebook…


 … to Joseph the Soldier.

And while I made maquettes and then animated them, my friend Philippa returned to her studio to produce a magnificent Conté drawing of puppets from the historic Toone collection.

Having had a preview of the works Philippa has prepared for her forthcoming exhibition, Magical Thinking, at the Art Shop Gallery in Abergavenny, I can promise that art-lovers are in for a treat. In addition to this beautiful drawing there will be some smaller ‘Toone’ paintings in the show, for those of us who are in thrall to the puppets.

Below: details from Philippa’s drawing.

When we were in Brussels Philippa and I fantasised about having an adventure together. We planned a venue in the great European tradition of café/bars, where in the evenings we would mount puppet shows to entrance patrons. Not puppet shows for children, but puppet shows that would be darkly erotic, rumbustious and subversive. The programme would always be a secret, so no-one in the audience would know what was on offer until it happened, and the puppets and the scenery, which Philippa and I would make, would of course be works of art that afterwards would be sold to discerning patrons! (This is how, innocents that we are, we planned to create some extra income!) I’m not sure that Philippa is particularly keen on working the puppets, so that task would probably fall to me, though I’d enlist the skills of Dave and Philippa’s daughters Oonagh and Lauren, who I’m sure would make wonderful puppeteers, and would just need a little encouragement and coaching from me to bring out their performing skills!

Well, I guess the puppet theatre will remain a fantasy for us to occasionally dip into for inspiration. But at the very least Philippa and I should one day have a joint exhibition where we can indulge our passion for puppets, and  we should start seriously planning for that.

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.

discovering the toone theatre in brussels: part two

Above: posters from past Toone productions and from puppet companies all around the world line the stairwell to the theatre.

On our first visit to the theatre, we somehow inadvertently found ourselves caught up in a celebration during which new ‘Chevaliers’… philanthropists from the Brussels business community who help to support the theatre financially… were being invested. I think we were the only ones present who weren’t a part of the proceedings, but we were made welcome and enjoyed ourselves immensely. Though we couldn’t follow the speeches, we laughed at the jokes and applauded these wonderful people with great gusto. The young man in the blue sweater with the shining smile… third from the left in the back row… is Nicholas Géal, the current proprietor of the Toone. Nicholas took over the responsibilities of the theatre from his father José, who had cared for it for forty years. Nicholas’ official title is ‘Toone VIII’, and he was ‘enthroned’ in 2003.

Above: from the rafters of the auditorium hang scores of puppets from the Toone repertoire of plays, and it’s interesting to share the space with such an interesting audience.

Below: between the performance and the investiture of the new Chevaliers, we were able to spend more time in the bar/museum with retired members of the Toone company.

In the next Toone instalment, I’ll be posting images of the performance of The Passion.

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!