Puppets have come a long way since Sooty, Muffin the Mule and Thunderbirds and can now be considered a legitimate and exciting theatrical genre. We have been quick to praise the innovation and originality of many of the companies but, as with any art form, we ignore the traditional forms at our peril.
On a recent visit to Brussels I spent an exceptionally entertaining and pleasant evening at the Théâtre Royal de Toone. Hidden down a dark and dingy alley off one of the city’s main shopping streets, and only 100m from the Grande Place, the café cum theatre is a step back in time. The ground-floor café/bar is festooned with old puppets, props, posters and other ephemera which all build the curiosity and expectations to what will be revealed when we climb the rickety, winding stairs to the theatre itself, a dusty attic nestling under the eaves.
Toone is a diminutive of the name Antoine and, like a royal dynasty, the regnal name is handed down from generation to generation. We are currently on Toone VIII, outnumbering the monarchs of Belgium by one. The theatre has been in its current form and building since 1963 but the company was created by Toone the 1st – Antoine Genty, who was born in 1804.
In 1931 the stock of the original puppets was kept intact and avoided being broken up thanks to a generous benefactor and became known as the Wolfers Collection. At the same time, The Puppets Friends Association was formed. The theatre was saved again in 1963 when the current proprietor José Géal took over from Toone VI, Pierre Welleman. Heir apparent, Toone VIII, is José’s son Nicolas who is now responsible for the day to day running of the theatre as well the production and presentation of the shows.
The puppets are a sort of hybrid between string and rod puppets and despite some very exotic costumes their appeal lies in their lack of sophistication. They are quite large, about one meter tall and, with a rigid rod attached to their heads and just a string for each arm, their movements are limited. Nevertheless, what they lack in finesse they make up for in charm and very good, hilarious scripts. The half-dozen or so puppeteers can be seen most of the time above the set to remind us that the actors are not human.
We saw a production of Romeo and Juliet, with other shows in the repertoire at the time of writing being Le Docteur Jekyll et Mister Hyde, Les Trois Mousquetaires and for Christmas, La Nativité et le Massacre des Innocents. All shows have original scripts by either Nicolas or José Géal. The sets and lighting are magnificent.
One touch I particularly liked was that the leading man is always played by the same puppet – Woltje (named after the 1931 benefactor) who seems to be the alter-ego of José (who was born in 1931), sharing with him the check cloth cap which they both always wear. What makes Woltje so endearing, apart from the cloth cap, is that he is a good head shorter than all the other puppets. His boyish charm extended to the bedroom scene for which he was sporting some racy patterned boxer shorts – full-frontal puppet nudity remains, for the moment, the domain of Avenue Q.
We had a quick chat with Nicolas during the interval and asked him if all the puppets were made on the premises. “A carpenter sculpts the hands and feet, a dressmaker creates the costumes and I assemble the whole body. We create new figures and costumes for each play, in total we have about 1300 puppets.” They are beautiful things and I wondered if any of them were for sale. “No, not really,” replied Nicolas, “although we maybe will sell one or two a year for about €600.”
The plays are performed in French, but in a Brussels dialect which will leave some gaps in your understanding even if your French is excellent. A lot of the jokes and references, even if you understand all the words are also local, so will tend to go above your head. However, despite the performance being full-length, with an interval during which one can buy a beer in the first-floor museum, I was never less than enthralled by the whole thing. Apparently the shows can be performed in English, if you can get enough people together.
If you like puppets, things old-fashioned, thick layers of patina, dusty attics and unashamed eccentricity then Théâtre Royal de Toone in Brussels is just the place for which you will want to make a beeline if you are ever in the Belgian capital. Highly recommended. Michael Hasted