English-language theatre has been around in Brussels for a long time. The English Comedy Club officially started in 1909, and one could even imagine it goes back much further, perhaps to the presence of a British community in Brussels before the Battle of Waterloo. The length of involvement people have can vary hugely as well - from interns here for 5 month stints, to people who live their whole adult life in Brussels. And for some, it echoes down the generations. Antonia Mochan spoke to Bob Hull, a former Chair of the Brussels Shakespeare Society and the Brussels British Community Association Not only was Bob involved in theatre here for many years including acting with his daughter, he now has the pleasure of seeing his granddaughter getting involved.
Bob’s start in Brussels theatre was decidedly musical. Coming to Brussels as part of the first wave of British civil servants after the United Kingdom joined the EU, his first theatrical outing was a production of The Gondoliers by the Gilbert and Sullivan Society (now the Brussels Light Opera Company) in 1978. After a few years away from Brussels, he got involved in theatre as soon as he came back, playing an unspecified small woodland mammal (“it was a stoat or a weasel”) in the English Comedy Club’s Toad of Toad Hall. There were a few more stage outings, including as the smallest policeman in a 1984 production of The Pirates of Penzance - all the others played by members of the Brussels Rugby Club. But it was a production of Loves Labours Lost that started him on his long history with presenting Shakespeare for Brussels audiences, which resulted in him becoming Chairman of the Brussels Shakespeare Society in 1999, as well as appearing in a number of the Society’s productions.
One of the highlights of the year for Brussels theatre lovers in the Noughties were the Brussels Shakespeare Society’s summer productions in the grounds of Corroy-le-Chateau. “I remember meeting the Marquis de Trazegnies who luckily was an Anglophile and happy to provide his castle and grounds on really good terms to allow us to do an outdoor Shakespeare Festival”, Bob tells me. Over several subsequent years audiences picnicked in the grounds while watching great Shakespeare productions, and he’s clearly proud of how important the event was to the Brussels theatre scene.
When I ask him about a memorable BSS production, he can quickly identify two that stand out: "Certainly Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia directed by Robert Rowe which was probably the biggest money spinner of all time for Brussels English theatre and The Mysteries, directed by Mossy Roche. We performed in a big barn. There was an amazing cast, schoolchildren and a cross section of English theatre groups and the music and the atmosphere were wonderful. Later I wanted to direct it in Hexham Abbey and had the rights direct from Tony Harrison, the author who lives in Newcastle, but I failed to raise the funding to do a major professional/amateur production."
Bob retired from his European career in 2006 but if anything his life seems to have got busier. He moved back to the UK, to the North-East of England, where he had grown up. He settled in the town of Hexham in Northumberland, where he was on the Council of Newcastle University, chairman of the local development trust, a councillor and then eventually Mayor. “I was mayor during COVID, and in 2019 and 2021 Hexham was voted the happiest place to live in the UK”, he tells me, with understandable pride. On his return to the UK, he did the Text and Performance MA course at Kings College London/RADA and worked with directors in the role of dramaturg, "so I was developing and understanding plays, editing texts, explaining the social, political and cultural connotations, cast selection and working with designers to create the visual metaphor for the drama in question". In 2007 he was involved in trying to create a professional English theatre company in Brussels as well as being a director of Tipping Point, an organisation bringing together scientists and artists of all kinds to develop work on climate change and sustainable development.
Although the Brussels Shakespeare Society decided at the time not to be part of the group that purchased the Warehouse, he understood how important it was to be to the Brussels theatre community. Not least because of how important it has been to his own family. “I was in a production of A Midsummer's Night Dream with my daughter, and now my granddaughter is in the EYT’s Alice In Wonderland. It’s a multigenerational activity that needs to be encouraged.” As well as his family ties, he speaks warmly of the friendships he has made “You work together through ups and downs. The shared experience and teamwork builds strong ties.”