Bruxelles or Brussels in Belgium is a weirdly polyglot city where you never know exactly what language to speak. My French is almost always met with English. And you stroll around the central tourist district near the Grand Place and over hear multilingual discussions in Spanish, Japanese, German, Italian, Chinese, Russian, French, British English, Arabic, African tongues, unplaceable accents, anything. And central Brussels is crowded it seems all the time. And as you stroll through the area an unusual kind of loneliness grips you. It seems like the world is too big, filled too many people, all hoping to do something with their lives, (or at least have ‘fun’) while the majority seem to be constantly fidgeting with some device in their hands. A selfie next to the Manneken Pis. Making a reservation for a museum. Talking to someone thousands of miles away. Welcome to travel in the 21st Century.
Not that Brussels is without sites. If you go to the remarkable Grand Place during the rain most of the tourists stay away and it takes on a moody atmosphere. And this time I discovered the National Museums, which are also certainly worth a few trips. But the crowds are everywhere and the only way to escape is walk off the tourist trail into a kind of no mans land in search of books and cheese.
Fortunately I wasn’t here to see the sites. Once again I was here for the puppets and to specifically to visit the Théâtre Royal de Toone and the Royal Theatre Peruchet and to visit my friends. (They are called ‘Royal’ because they actually have the blessings of the royal Belgian monarchy.) This time, after what should be easily the worst night of my trip at the Hotel La Madeleine, (the details are not worth the effort here) I was able to spend a week as a guest of Nicolas Géal and Toone on the 4th Floor (5th for Americans) in an old renovated building right next to the theatre. This gave me a quiet place to use as a fulcrum for my time in Brussels. Well usually quiet. One night I heard lots of chanting and shouting one night. I opened the window to find a sloppy hazing ritual afflicting a crowd below me.
Bruxelle does have it’s own bruxellaire culture of strange accents and attitudes. It is glimpsed between Jacques Brel songs and the narrow winding streets. People once spoke the Flemish Dutch here mixed with French words. Now they speak Walloon French with Dutch words and phrases thrown in. Belgium if seen in dim light could be seen as France’s Canada. People constantly and with a sense of humor saying we aren’t French. Or Dutch? Or do we even like each other, French and Dutch? It’s a place where bright yellow and purple meet. And they can barely be seen next to each other, they clash culturally so strongly. Yet here they are in Bruxelles.
Now I’ve been here before. And I’ve visited the theatres last year. But I decided to try to get a bit more footage for the documentary. And so on the first night I scampered over to Toone where Nicolas Géal was is old swaggering self. Or is it a bruxelaise thing. He greeted the audience in French, Dutch and English to introduce a very bizarre comic version of Dracula. Which included such odds and ends as Dracula’s interest in the Brussels dialect, a large plush rat, puppets being decapitated, some repulsive but unexpectedly seductive female puppets, and Dracula ugly yet chic or else in polka dotted undershorts or else burnt to crisp. The audience loved it. And for all four shows I saw it was nearly a full house. Kids would walk out, imitating the count, saying Kriek! Krack! Kronch! (Kriek is a Belgium sour cherry beer, which the count loves because the color reminds him of blood.
Now the marionettes in Brussels are loosely based on the kind of Sicilian marionettes that I will be encountering on my first trip to Italy at the end of November. They are heavy, one third human size and are passed across the essentially Baroque style stage by a team of eager younger puppeteers. Meanwhile Nicolas Géal performs every voice himself. And what a job he does! The Brussels accents is broad, with extremely explosive gargled R sounds and a flattened intonation. The main charter Woltje (pronounced Woal-Cha) is a somewhat sarcastic Bruxellois in a check cap and pants. He is in every play somewhere. As is his friend Jef Pataat, following a large nose that precedes him by about two minutes that can’t be described in polite society, speaking in a severely nasal voice swallowing sound and a kind of stupid braggadocio. The puppets look like they been bashed around because they are. There’s a lot of slapstick comedy and sly in jokes for the audience.
Toone is a special place because it seems to be the oldest continuing puppet theatre in Europe, starting around 1833. It has been in residence in several different structures be landing here directly in the center of the town. And each new puppeteer is named after the first Toone, Antoine Genty. And so Nicolas Géal is Royal Toone VIII. While his father José was Toone VII. And luckily José for the first time and he consented to an interview, and this was a coup for me since José was in his late 80’s and I wasn’t sure if he’d feel up to an hour long interview. But! He was. And near the end of my stay in Brussels he met me at their gallery, in the same building I was staying and I was filled in with much more Toone history. He said that when he first saw the Toone theatre as a child there were only a handful of people in attendance. And years later the theatre was actually being closed down and the puppets being sold off, inappropriately it turned out, that he finally, after working for years in stage and early television puppetry, became Toone VII and then basically turned the theatre into the living institution it is today.
I originally heard about the Toone theatre from an interview with the Quays. They had seen the theatre during the reign of Toone VII. José and I also discussed avant garde playwright Michel de Ghelderode, who wrote several plays for puppets. The theatre still puts on his curious Nativity play during each December as well as Ghelderode’s Le mystère de la Passion in the spring: A strange Passion play that mixes the sacred and sacrilegious, somewhat like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where the farce revolves around Judas and his wife while there is a real Christ who dies for humanity. And next on their schedule is a Toone marionette version of Aristophanes – Peace. (?) Toone remains a unique puppetry institution. It is not modern ye somehow it manages to connect with people still.And I sense that this is because, besides their humor, they these strange figures with weird faces that somehow convey and antique yet timeless quality of surreality. When in Brussels go see them. And tell Nicolas I told you to go.
Next time we discover how the elephant got his nose.
On the Bus to Lyon, France
For more on Toone start reading our 2016 series here:
And then our first visit to Toone here in 2012:
PS. Without going into all of the pecuniary details let’s just say that my final week back in Alaska was filled with many unforeseen costs and though I had excellent news about helping my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry (read the last post) none of that funding will affect me at all for at least a year. So if you are wondering if I need anything or if you can help out? The answer is yes. You can put some coins in my PayPal account. And I can assure you anything would be practical and useful. Thanks Byrne
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.)
Charleville-Mézières is in France on the Belgian border. My next stop was Brussels to find the Toone Marionnette Theatre, perhaps the oldest continuing puppetry organization in Europe. Yet I was on a train, then bus, then train again (don’t ask) on my way back to Paris with my back stressing load of belongings for another meeting. One of the people I had most wanted to connect with was madame Leona Beatrice Martin-Starewitch, the granddaughter of the first animated puppet (in fact dead bugs!) filmmaker Ladislas Starewitch, a Russian of Polish extraction, whose parents were from Lithuania. (Variously spelled Ladislaw Starevitch or Starewich, or Władysław Starewicz his birth name in Polish and even Владислав Старевич depending on the country. Since we are in France we’ll stay with the French orthography.) After the Russian Revolution Starewitch moved to Paris, less from political convictions than from the simple fact that Bolsheviks did not have the temperament to appreciate or support his sort of puppet films. Starewitch found success within a few years of his arrival in Paris and his home became a magnet for White Russian emigrés. Most of his great films were made in France: La Voix du Rossignol (The Voice of the Nightingale), Le Roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox), Le Lion Devenu Vieux (The Old Lion) and especially the miraculous Fetiche Mascotte (The Mascot) from 1933.
Starewitch is a big influence on the Brothers Quay. When I mentioned him to Švankmajer, he immediately corrected my translator who was fumbling with the name a bit. Terry Gilliam also owes him a real debt and considers The Mascot as one of the ten greatest animated films made. Tim Burton’s animated work screams Starewitch. And Fetiche Mascotte seems like a direct ancestor of Toy Story. And if Wes Anderson did not make a careful study of Starewitch before making the Fantastic Mr. Fox. I’d be really surprised. Starewitch, like George Méliès, is one of those seminal figures, an original, an inventor, whose work is still literally marvelous!
I made my way to a small café near the Bois de Vincennes to meet Madame Martin-Starewitch. I had tried several times to get in touch with her while in Paris, but alas schedules would not permit. And when she asked top meet me here two days after I had already left Paris I couldn’t turn her down. Fortunately the place was not overly crowded. I had just taken over a small booth with my three traveling packs and ordered a meal when she arrived, a bit early but that was fine with me. I still had to get to Brussels that evening.
We immediately began to talk. Her English was good enough to understand me thoroughly when I explained the nature of the project. The Brothers Quay had wondered if she remembered meeting them back in the 80’s at a conference in Annecy. She did indeed, and fondly. She was glad to know that their work owed such a debt to her grandfather. One of the first things she had told me was that they had recently found a longer version of Fetiche Mascotte that superseded all of the other versions. To puppet folk and animation fans this was good news indeed!
Also she told me that in addition to the four DVDs of Starewicz work currently available in France (with English subtitles, etc) there would be another four due to hit in the near future including one with the longest version of The Mascot. While she was the guardian of her grandfather’s legacy Starewitch is still hardly a household name. The one American DVD issued a while ago and now out of print was essentially a bootleg made without any funds ever returning to the estate. We both agreed that what was needed was a film like Hugo that made prominent use of Starewitch the way Scorsese had used Méliès. And she had stories of her grandfather that were certainly film worthy in themselves. All in all it was an excellent meeting with Madame Martin-Starewitch and she too was game for an interview and to use her grandfather’s work in Gravity From Above.
Now it was time to move on to get to Brussels. After passing through the Metro again, while sitting next to a hip young girl in a real fur coat (something you’d never see in America), listening to an entire string ensemble playing Baroque music at the busy Châtelet stop and paying an extra hundred dollars to get a train to Brussels, thanks again to the disconnect between the rail passes and life on the ground, I arrived, my back demanding rest in a rather industrial hotel near the old center of Brussels at around 21h00. Unfortunately my current information on the Toone had said that they had performed that day but were not to play again for a few more days. Had I come straight from Charleville without the extra stop I would have made it! But that Parisian meeting was very important.
I then strolled Bruxelles in the dark, passing the central cathedral bathed in purple light, and locating Le Théâtre Royal de Toone all the while slowly savoring a couple of Belgian chocolates. The next day, after sleeping in to give my aching muscles a rest, I wandered through the old town under a light rain. I stopped into to see if I could glean anything from restaurant that was also a part of the Toone theatre and it turned out that they were indeed playing that night! So much for relying on websites as some sort of final word…
I drifted around the town, found some old record stores, though sadly left the wares in their bins by command of my spine. That evening I entered the Toone restaurant again to wait for the theatre upstairs to open. The show for the evening was Romeo and Juliet á la Toone. Eventually the Royal Toone VIII himself, Nicolas Géal arrived in buoyant spirits to open the door to the stairs for us. Géal is the son of Toone José Géal, an important puppeteer in his own right who bequeathed the theatre to Nicolas back in 2003 in a coronation ceremony by the town Burgomaster. (Toone is pronounced ‘tone’ and a Belgian nickname for the original Toone I, Antoine Genty, who started the theatre a few years back in 1830.)
An eager throng ascended, passing old Toone posters, including the Passion play of the legendary modern playwright and puppet enthusiast Michel de Ghelderode. In the theatre itself we sat beneath over a hundred figures, each about one third human scale, that were hanging from the rafters high above us: such figures as Nazis with skulls for heads, Napoleon, knights in armor, many princesses and scores of variations on the classic Toone hero Woltje, a jaunty figure in checkered clothes and cap.
Eventually maximum density for the evening had been achieved and Toone VIII emerged to greet us to the evenings production of Romeo and Juliet. He then vanished behind a side curtain and the farce began in an outrageous nasal quacking French/Dutch dialect. Woltje plays Romeo. Juliet has the face of a doll. Mercutio is played by another classic Toone figure with a nose long enough to be sold by a hotdog vendor. In the middle of one scene, Romeo is distracted by a cellphone call. Obviously it’s not exactly word for word Shakespeare. But it certainly is amusing.
During the intermission Nicolas Géal invites us all down to the ‘museum’, which does have quite a few battered antique characters on the wall, but really this is a chance to down a bit of another Belgian specialty, beer, which I must confess is an excellent way to spend the halftime. After about twenty minutes we then watched the rest of the show, which being a comedy does not exactly have the same ending as the Shakespearean tragedy. Death comes for Romeo and Juliet, but seconds before he can take the dead puppets is unceremoniously booted off stage my the monk.
After the show I spent a while talking with Géal about Toone history. I reminded him of a strange story of one of the Toone marionettists who was found dead hanging among his puppets. To confirm the fact, he showed me a book that his mother wrote back in the 70’s about the history of the Toone theatre, complete with oodles of illustrations. It’s a book I determined to track down some day. He also explained something about the weird Brussels accent that used to be Dutch with some French but over the years had become French with some Dutch. Géal was delighted to have Toone performances captured when I returned for part two of this journey next year. And I was pleased to have another solid contact for the future.
And I can also gladly say when in Belgium do not miss Le Théâtre Royal de Toone. Tell Toone VIII that you heard about it from me. It doesn’t matter what language you speak. You’re in Brussels, a place where language is so polyglot that your original tongue doesn’t matter to anyone. (Still, at least try to learn a few French greetings.)
Next we cross La Manche to enter Angleterre.
December 22, 2012
For more information on Starewitch go here:
And to discover Le Théâtre Royal de Toone try this: