Melancholic people are lost in nostalgic spaces, time passes and then they sing. When they speak texts, they lack fire, only in the silence and the music does an honest opinion of life light up in them. Then time passes again.
Christoph Marthaler’s production style is so different from any other directorial handwriting that he has acquired hardly any imitators in fifteen years. Just like other exceptional artists – such as Einar Schleef, Frank Castorf or Christoph Schlingensief – Marthaler’s theatrical art is the expression of such an unmistakable personality that it fails as a model and teaching opinion. Anyone who uses Marthaler’s methods immediately becomes guilty of plagiarism.
What is unique about the particular theatrical art of the Swiss director and musician is that he derives beauty from weakness and effort. The people who populate his stage are the total negation of thinking for a purpose. Tired caretakers, grumpy proletariats, grey office workers, slow thinkers and many other forms of surrendering to fate. Inertia has heroic status here. But unlike comedy and satire, which use similar types, Marthaler’s theatre does not derive its greatness from caricaturing these lives. Irrespective of whether he shows a drunk racist who has peed in his jogging pants, or a complete failure of an entrepreneur, his people always retain their dignity. And in their joint singing and waiting, in clumsy actions or capital shyness, in spite of all of their differences they are united by a strong bond of emotion and humour.
In spite of the tremendous sympathy that Marthaler extends to his mostly male losers, and that make his productions so heart-warming, his style often was initially a great provocation. His very first evening of songs in Basel, where the theatre musician took his first directorial steps, ended in a major row. The project on the Swiss military, whose title mocked the national anthem (“When the Alpine Mind Reddens, Kill, Free Swiss, Kill”), almost led to his manager Frank Baumbauer being thrown out of his job.
But it is not only his fine mockery, which deals with post-war German politicians, the insolvent Swiss Air or false love of the homeland in various projects, that often has sharp edges. It was especially the extreme stretching of time, which has been known to force the audience to watch lazy dozing on the stage for minutes at a time, and the freedom of plot when dealing with texts, for which many audience members and critics could show no understanding. His first major projects in the early 1990s – such as the Goethe update “Goethe’s Faust Root 1 + 2” at the Schauspielhaus Hamburg or “Do Away with the European! Do Away With Him! Do Away With Him! Do Away With Him! “Do Him In!”, an evening of songs about the bad relationship between the two parts of Germany at the Berliner Volksbühne – were so alien to some observers that they accused him of dilettantism.
Amazingly, the dense musical atmosphere and the strange tableau of oddballs and mad situations that Marthaler constantly recreates are still showing hardly any signs of wear. This is certainly due to the familial organisation of his universe. Since his first productions, a core staff that has an equal share in the success of his works has proved its worth. The set designer Anna Viebrock with her cathedral-like everyday architecture, the literary manager Stefanie Carp, who provides the basic text for the projects, as well as a few actors (André Jung, Ueli Jäggi, Josef Ostendorf, Jean-Pierre Cornu, Graham F. Valentine) ensure as a team that the Marthaler Theatre constantly brings about new versions with all of its originality.
Although this artistic community failed as theatre management in Zurich, where Marthaler was appointed manager in 2000, recently it revealed the awesome and modest side of a great classic there with merry curiosity in its adaptation of Büchner’s “Danton’s Death”. The Revolution is set in a pub where the historical conflicts have just musically muted consequences and the women saucily reveal the realistic side of struggles between men. As a result, familiar theatrical characters acquire completely new human dimensions. So showing the beauty of the weak is far from over.