The show must go on, say Belgian theatre staff amid virus shutdown

Belgium's Theatre Royal de la Monnaie is one of the two being occupied
Belgium's Theatre Royal de la Monnaie is one of the two being occupied EMMANUEL DUNAND AFP
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Brussels (AFP)

Theatre staff in Belgium left desperate by seemingly unending virus restrictions that have forced them off stage and left seats empty are making their frustrations known.

They are occupying two theatres in Brussels and are threatening to stage unauthorised performances in another.

Their anger over theatres being kept dark with no reopening date is fused with that of other professions -- restaurants, non-essential shops, hairdressers -- which keep seeing prospects for a return to activity pushed back.

"I see people around me with a lot of doubts and uncertainty, and living on the brink too, with friends unable to pay the rent," said Thymios Fountas, a 31-year-old playwright and stage director.

He is part of a group that has taken over a state theatre and concert hall, La Monnaie, for more than a week, using a tactic already seen in neighbouring France.

The venue's management, after negotiations, is allowing 10 of the protesters, including Fountas, to sleep in the theatre until the end of this week. Members of the public are not allowed inside.

"We wanted to occupy the theatre to make a point directly to the government," Fountas said.

- Daily demonstrations -

Each day the group loudly presses its complaints in the pedestrianised shopping street outside. Disgruntled members of other affected sectors -- particularly in hospitality, events and nightclubs -- often join in, as well as those without residency papers and feminist groups.

Police late Friday confiscated sound equipment they were using after music was played late on the street.

On the facade of the National Theatre, not far away, a banner proclaiming "Art and People Before Money" has been hung over posters supporting students and denouncing police violence.

"It's a political choice to close places where we meet, where we socialise, and cultural venues. And we're fed up with that ideology," said Florentin, a 26-year-old actor and lighting specialist who declined to give his last name.

He said he was getting by through government handouts and from contracts that were cancelled but partially paid.

Michael De Cock, the artistic director for the KVS Theatre in Brussels, said he backed the theatre occupations and was planning to go a step further by putting on a play on April 26.

That date was chosen because it is the day after the government is expected to ease restrictions for other sectors in Belgium, though not for theatres.

"We are going to organise it with all precautions," he said, listing ventilation, hand gel, socially distanced seating and direction arrows on the floor for an audience of up to 100 people in a 500-seat capacity theatre.

"The aim is to show that we can do this in a way that works," he said, calling it "shameful" that authorities were not looking at reopening performance halls when trains headed for the Belgian coast are "packed".

"I hope the politicians understand that a solution needs to be found," he said.

As for the risk of being fined for breaking coronavirus rules, De Cock shrugged. "I can't even imagine that. That would really be going too far."