Bruges Royal City Theatre celebrates 150 years


A recreation of the opening night in 1869 kicks off an agenda of special events for the esteemed building’s 150th anniversary

Step into history

When you step into the auditorium of the Koninklijke Stadsschouwburg, or the Royal City Theatre, in Bruges, you are immersed in an opulent atmosphere of red and gold, from the richly upholstered seats to the gilt plasterwork, up to the painted ceiling. There is already a feeling of anticipation.

“I love these highly decorated theatres because you enter into a very different universe,” says Filip Strobbe, director of the Bruges Cultural Centre, which runs the theatre. “You know that something special is going to happen. It’s a world of its own.”

The year ahead will be particularly special for the Stadsschouwburg, since it is celebrating its 150th anniversary. A series of events in and around the theatre will reflect on its past, present and future, while an exhibition at the Arentshuis puts its colourful history on display.

The celebrations open on 28 September with a gala presentation of Les Mousquetaires de la Reine, the piece that inaugurated the Stadsschouwburg in 1869. “It will be performed by two musical associations from Bruges, and we have invited the public to attend dressed in the fashions of 1869,” Strobbe explains.

He has already had his own costume fitted. “And we will arrive in the same way that people did then, by horse and carriage.”

The quarter had the reputation of being the city’s red light district

- Filip Strobbe

History has not been kind to Les Mousquetaires, a French comic opera written in part to cash in on the success of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. “From what I hear, it is not that great,” admits Strobbe, “but the fun is in the dressing up and re-enacting the event of 150 years ago.”

The Stadsschouwburg was built at a moment in history when Bruges had ceased to be a powerful merchant city, yet still aspired to grand civic projects. The building not only replaced an existing theatre, but involved levelling a whole neighbourhood, so that the building sits in its own square, hollowed out of the city’s mediaeval streets.

There were practical reasons for doing this, such as improving access and reducing the risk of fire, but urban legend adds another motivation. “The quarter had the reputation of being the city’s red light district,” Strobbe says. “A recent historic survey shows that this wasn’t entirely true, but it was a very rundown neighbourhood.”

The style of the building was also aspirational and a product of its time. “It was built in a very classic style, just before the gothic revival in Bruges. If it had been built 20 years later, it might well have had a gothic facade.”

The architect selected to design the theatre was Gustave Saintenoy, who had also been responsible for Luxembourg Railway Station and the Palace of the Count of Flanders in Brussels. “At the time Bruges was a fairly poor city, so it’s remarkable that the council chose such a famous architect and the most expensive plan presented to it.”

Saintenoy took his inspiration from the Opéra Garnier in Paris, which was still under construction but represented the latest thinking in theatre design. The plan also reflected the social divisions of the time, with separate entrances and seating for the nobility, the bourgeois and the common people.

We no longer use the upper level where the common people sat because the view is so poor

- Filip Strobbe

“We actually no longer use the upper level, where the common people sat,” Strobbe says. “It’s intact and restored, but the view from those seats is too poor.”

Ironically, the same can be said of the grand boxes reserved for the mayor of Bruges and the governor of West Flanders, decorated with their respective coats of arms. “These are good places if you want to be seen, but too close to the stage for a good view of the performance, so now they are used by the technicians.”

In its early days, the theatre was often leased by French companies, who catered to the tastes of the city’s bourgeois, francophone population. This sometimes displeased Church organisations, who considered many of the plays immoral.

“In the 19th century there were strong divisions between the Catholics and Liberals, and the Stadsschouwburg became a meeting place for the rather liberal bourgeoisie of Bruges,” Strobbe explains. “Later on, in the first half of the 20th Century and certainly after the Second World War, the city took a greater part in programming, and the theatre became a place for all kinds of performing arts, from dance and music to serious drama and comedy.”

The Stadsschouwburg’s status as the city’s main venue for the performing arts changed in 2002 with the opening of the Concertgebouw, a vast modern venue on the edge of the historic centre. In addition to its size, it offers more flexibility, better acoustics and a setting more suitable for modern performance techniques.

“While the Concertgebouw has become an international beacon, our focus can be more on the city and the region, telling the stories of Bruges and its inhabitants,” Strobbe says.

The Stadsschouwburg is a source of pride for the city, as well as a source of creativity and of imagination

- Filip Strobbe

He also thinks that some kinds of performance still benefit from the Stadsschouwburg’s special atmosphere. “The auditorium is a half-circle that embraces the artist. The audience is physically much closer, and a different interaction is possible from that in the Concertgebouw. So it is a special setting for a solo artist or a string quartet.”

Highlights from the agenda in the months to come include Van kop tot teen (From Head to Toe) on 6 October, an exploration of the theatre building that blends visual art, performance and audience participation. Meanwhile, local artist Geertje Vangenechten reflects on the past 150 years with The Comedy of the Human Condition, a mural at the Biekorf that in November develops as an installation in the Stadsschouwburg cellars.

Walking tours of the theatre and the surrounding neighbourhood take place from October onwards, and on New Year’s Eve there is a retro dance party in the theatre’s foyer. Next April, young programmers set the agenda for two days.

Looking forward, Strobbe’s ambition is to open up the theatre much more to different kinds of initiatives. “It’s a source of pride for the city, and a source of creativity and of imagination, and we want to enhance that,” he says. “There are also some exciting plans for the whole neighbourhood that would become interconnected as a kind of cultural campus.”