A puppet of Cyrano de Bergerac has presided over my mother’s mantle as long as I can remember. It was such a part of our living room scenery that I never bothered to ask about its origin. I only knew that our Cyrano had once performed on the Brussels stage.
On my last visit to Brussels, I found our puppet’s roots in an age-old tavern at the end of a cobblestoned alleyway. Stepping into Toone for the first time felt a bit like coming home to me, as though Cyrano’s cousins had been waiting for me for decades.
The bar at Toone is one of the oldest in Brussels and a magical place to stop in for a drink, take in an evening puppet show, or better yet, do both. Its entrance is a little tricky to find. Just off the Grasmarkt near the Grand Place there’s a small archway. Duck through there to find a quiet cobbled courtyard and just beyond, a stone building. If you arrive at dusk, the place seems to have a magical golden glow.
Upon entry you’ll find several rooms with tables, some puppets hanging from the ceiling, and an old puppet stage where a performance of Don Quixote seems frozen in time. Though for some this is all they’ll see while drinking local beer at the bar, for others it’s just the waiting room for the main event: the weekend performances of the Royal Theater of Toone.
Friday and Saturday nights a line of young and old, locals and tourists, snakes up the stairs to the “new” theater to see classics like the Three Musketeers, William Tell, and Hamlet, in miniature. The performances are in Bruxellois, the ancient language of Brussels that mixes French and Flemish. Don’t let that scare off you or the kids. The classic plays are full of action and quite easy to follow. They also offer shows in a variety of other languages on demand.
Brussels’ puppet shows go back to Philippe II’s reign, when shows were performed in the crowded rooms of the traditional Marolles neighborhood, with folks gathered as much for the entertainment as for the warm fires that glowed on long winter nights.
The Theatre of Toone began in 1830 with its first master puppeteer, Toone I. The current master puppeteer, Nicolas Géal, was named Toone VIII in 2003. The honor is passed from one generation to the next, not always to a direct descendant, but to the best puppeteer. Nicolas did receive the honor from his father José, however, who had held the title of Toone VII since 1963. Nicolas stays on to help with the shows and to offer Bruxellois language courses on Saturday mornings.
Although shows are not specifically geared toward children, they are generally appropriate for all ages.
Toone is a Brussels tradition and a cultural treasure and one that I will remember fondly the next time I run into the diminutive Cyrano at my mother’s house.