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Keeping tradition alive: We visit Brussels' last-remaining puppet theatre for adults

17:27 22/12/2015
Brussels once boasted about 50 puppet theatres, catering for people who couldn't afford the theatre or opera. Now there is only one left

The emotional heart of Brussels, the Royal Toone Theatre, is a puppet theatre for adults - the last living example of a unique cultural tradition that dates from the 16th century when Philip II of Spain, afraid of political unrest, closed all the theatres.

The puppet shows were a way around the ban. Toone, dating from approximately 1830, is named after the founding puppeteer Antoine Gentil. Each succeeding puppetmaster is named Toone, and twice the succession has passed from father to son.

Originally in the Marolles, since 1965 the Royal Toone Theatre is located near the Grand-Place in a building dating from 1695 complete with ancient café and garden. We spoke to puppetmaster Nicolas Géal AKA Toone VIII.

When was Toone founded?
We don't know for sure as the first one couldn't read nor write, so the only stuff we have left is a licence, because he needed a licence to be able to perform. The first Toone started in the Marolles and it was meant for people who couldn't read. Basically they would go to the theatre and understand what was going on. They could not afford to go to big theatres or the opera so they would go to small puppet theatres. There used to be 50 theatres like this one in the late 19th century and now this is the only one.

So they took operas and classical stories, added some Brussels humour and performed them with puppets?
Yes but each story was performed over two months like a soap opera. People had no TV so they could make it. That's the reason why all those theatres disappeared in the 1960s, because of television.

You are Toone VIII and you succeeded your father Toone VII. Why Toone?
Toone was the nickname of Antoine Gentil, the founder, but the Toone title isn't always passed from father to son. You've got to be crazy enough to be willing to do it.

Originally this was only performed in Bruxellois or Brussels Vloms, but you now offer performances in English, German and Spanish?
We have The Three Musketeers, Hamlet and Macbeth in English. I'm working now on Sherlock Holmes. But whatever the language, people know the story, so they can follow.

Tell us a bit about the puppets
When my father took it over in the 1960s he only had 100 puppets. The old Toone was very old and tired, so he just had 100 puppets and from then on my father had to redo everything - find a place to perform. He had to rewrite the shows so they could fit one night. That's an amazing job.

We have some very old puppets dating from the 19th century. Unfortunately we don't have a lot of those as people at the time had no reason to keep them. It wasn't like a museum. Now we have about 1,400 puppets - they are typical Sicilian puppets that can be made to walk. They are quite heavy, about 8kg each. It's probably Sicilian puppeteers who brought the tradition into Belgium after the middle ages. With scene changes we need about six puppets per show for each main character.

The puppets are hand-made?
Yes. We have a carpenter for the hands and feet and then a lady for the costume, another lady does the hat. It's a lot of work. If it was one person for the whole puppet it would probably take a week to do it.

What's involved in being a puppeteer? I understand there are about seven puppeteers per show, but that you do all the voices?
Our puppets are not too complicated. There is basically just one string - it's quite easy. You don't need to be so qualified to move it. I guess it would take two months before you can walk the puppets. It's the weight of the body on one leg and then the other. It's like walking drunk. Because the puppets are so heavy each puppeteer doesn't stay with each puppet for the whole show so it would be confusing to try to stay with a particular character's voice so I do them all.

At the end of the performance you must be pretty exhausted?
I think it must be like boxing; I never did that but I think they probably feel like that at the end of the match.

The Toone nativity is performed (in French) on 25-26 and 29-31 December. Most performances are at 20.30, some at 16.00. Entry €12. Théâtre Royal de Toone, Impasse Sainte-Pétronille (66 rue du Marché aux Herbes), Brussels

Written by Richard Harris