In search of something new to do in Brussels, I stumbled upon a sandwich-board sign for a marionette show at Theatre Royal de Toone. It pointed down an alley to a courtyard and a cafe/bar, so I wandered down to find out more. The bartender said that there would be a show at 8:30. “Hamlet,” he said.
A marionette show of Hamlet? How could I resist?
With an hour to kill, I headed back outside for a Kriek (Belgium’s famed cherry beer). The surroundings were strange, to say the least. There were a few tables on the broken brick path and a few more plastic white tables in the unmown grass. We seemed to be in a courtyard behind buildings that were never meant to be seen from the back. It was rundown, but also had a backyard feel to it. Most of the people sitting there seemed to know each other. More people came and greeted them. I sipped my beer. I loved it there. Especially when we suddenly heard a Pink Floyd CD being piped in through an old speaker. I can’t think of more perfect music for the scene before me.
Then, clang, clang, clang. Someone rang a hand bell. It was apparently time for the show.
We walked up two flights of stairs to the theatre. I was enchanted immediately. Wooden benches with calico-colored cushions lined the small room. Calliope music played and I felt like a kid on a merry-go-round, about to be entertained. Marionettes hung from the walls, stacked two rows high. It was magical. I wanted to stay in this attic hideaway forever. They didn’t even need to put on a show.
But they did. The troupe of people I’d seen greeting each other outside were actually the puppetmasters (though I wouldn’t know that until the curtain call at the end). The play began and I was dazzled by the artistry of it. These were not the marionettes I was familiar with as a child. The ones I’d seen were controlled by strings attached to a cross-bar. These marionettes were 3′ high with stiff wooden legs that clomped across stage as the puppetmasters maneuvered rods attached to their heads and one or two strings controlling their arms. It was that simple. And yet, they made the marionettes come alive. We could often see their hands and arms moving the ‘actors.’ It just added to the experience.
Hamlet began. It had all the drama and comedy of Shakespeare, and I think it followed the play pretty well, but I can’t say for sure. I don’t speak French and the entire play was done in French. I knew that going in and didn’t care. I knew the play enough to follow along. The melodrama, action, changes of set scene, and costumed marionettes were wonderful. It was dramatic. It was whimsical. It was clever. It was fun. If you speak French, don’t miss it. If you don’t, see it anyway. To miss it would be a greater tragedy than the play itself.
IF YOU GO:
Theatre Royal de TooneMaison des Arts, 147 chaussee de Hacht a 1030 Bruxelles
10 Euro per person
Shows: Thursday-Sunday evenings