On my second day in Brussels, a relaxed morning attending to chores needing attention, I hiked a couple of kilometers in the misty rain through central Brussels to seek out a film starring Sylvie Testud. (If that name doesn’t mean anything to you you’re in good company with the majority of the world outside of France. Maybe I’ll dilate upon her at some future moment when I deal with random European events that have little to do with puppetry.) At one point while waiting for the film to begin (I’d given myself enough time to get lost.) as I was strolling past endless fashionable boutiques I turned a corner and suddenly found I was in Africa. I walked into a mall with African hair and nail salons, Afropop grooves filled the air, many colorful print robes draped women and mannequins and tropical foods filled the green grocers. And then as soon it started it was over and then I was back in fashion land.
That evening I arrived around 20:00 (8PM) to visit Le Théâtre royal de Toone. (Toone is pronounced tone.)I walked through their pub and waited by the door. Nicolas Géal soon swaggered in with the good natured bonhomie of a captain of guard, which of course is what he was, as well as voicing every other role in the evening’s performance of Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers). Le Théâtre royal de Toone has an unusual structure to its style. The marionettes, based upon the Sicilian puppets, stand about four feet tall with a rod sticking out of their heads. There are then strings that control the hands from above. They are heavy and must be passed from puppeteer to puppeteer to produced the freedom of movement that actually having each operator voice the puppet would be difficult. So all of the marionette voices are spoken by Nicolas Géal. And that’s quite a feat. He does the romantic leads, male and female, the strange marble mouth servants, the musketeers, the King, the Queen, Cardinal Richelieu and the unique saucy Bruxellois puppet Woltje. And much of this is done in a strange Bruxelles accent the often says the French ‘r’ sound like a quack. The musketeers played slyly as a parody of the famous Dumas book. And it gets raucous and absurd at times. A good time was had by all.
After the show I met an organ student from Chicago named Katie who was surprised by this curious demimonde of puppetry. She stayed to learn more as Nicolas allowed me to gather the players together to get close up shots and granted me an interview in his museum/cafe. In 2012 Nicolas had shown me a large illustrated book on the Toone theatre. It was impossible to find these days. But I would have easily spent decent money on it had I found it anywhere. Well I did. That afternoon I walked into a gallery of used bookstores and just as I was about to leave I looked down on a rack and there it was in used condition for 30 euros. I snapped it up on the spot. And surprised Nicolas by asking him to sign it that evening as Toone VIII.
The Toone marionette theatre is perhaps the oldest continuing puppet theatre in Europe (research is needed to determine if some Italian theatres might be older) it goes back to the 1830s. The original founder was named Antoine, and in Brussels the nickname was Toone. Eventually the name Toone became a mock title of royalty. And so Jose Géal was Toone VII and Nicolas is number 8.
The theatre did not survive into the 21st Century without incident. There were tough times. The late 19th Century was evidently a peak time for Brussels puppet troupes and there were several theatres. Working class folks used to come to watch serialized shows, similar again to the Sicilian theatres. Melodrama and skulduggery were the order of the day. But with the rise of cabarets and movie theatres the marionette theatres began to fall on hard times. One Toone in the late 1920s was so depressed over the state of things that he actually committed suicide, his body was found hanging among the puppets. (Think about that image for a moment.) The hard times continued into the thirties when there was a rescue effort, but then in the 50s came television, which nearly destroyed puppetry altogether. And yet with help from various sources the theatre managed, particularly under Jose Géal’s auspices, to revive and continue. I nearly met Jose this evening. But he left before the show was over. The theatre continues strongly to this day playing shows largely attended by tourists, the curious and a few Belgians, when they manage to pull themselves away from their endless varieties of beer.
(Brussels part three next week!) (Read about our first visit to Le Théâtre royal de Toone here.)