Christoph Marthaler

© David Baltzer
Born in 1951 in Erlenbach near Zurich. Studied music in Zurich and mime training under Jacques Lecoq in Paris. In the 1970s and 1980s he was employed as a theatre musician at various German-speaking stages and developed his first small music theatre projects in Switzerland. Frank Baumbauer then brought him to Basel Theatre in 1989 where he gave his first song evenings and presented his first productions. There, met the set designer Anna Viebrock and the literary manager Stefanie Carp, with whom he has formed a production team ever since.

From 1993 onwards various directorial work as in-house director at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg under the management of Frank Baumbauer and under Frank Castorf at the Berliner Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz. From 1994 also opera projects with the conductor Sylvain Cambreling in Frankfurt, Berlin, Vienna and Salzburg.

In 1996 he was awarded the Konrad Wolf Prize, in 1997 together with Anna Viebrock the Bavarian Theatre Prize and the Fritz Kortner Prize and, in 1998, the Europe Prize in Taormina. In 1997 and 1999 he was voted director of the year in the critics’ survey of “Theater heute”.

In 2001 he became the manager at the Zurich Schauspielhaus, which he left prematurely in 2004 after political disagreements. In 2004 he was awarded the Berlin Theatre Prize together with Anna Viebrock.

In 2011 Christoph Marthaler was honoured with the most important prize in Switzerland for theatre makers, the Hans-Reinhart-Ring.

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Portrait: Christoph Marthaler

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, Olivia Grigolli, Bettina Stucky, Clemens Sienknecht, Jürg Kienberger) 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.

Heavily scarred by the petty political intrigues that led to his resignation as artistic director at the Zürich Schauspielhaus, even though it had been celebrated as Theatre of the Year twice during his tenure, Marthaler initially took an artistic break, but later found his way back to the grand opera of patient suffering with which his name is associated. The Fruit-Fly, the project he created at the Berlin Volksbühne in 2005, picked up where the absurd laboratory situation of his Faust Root left off, conjuring up once more the magic of poetic exhaustion with serene comedy and startlingly beautiful songs.

In 2007, he created a singing 19th century sweatshop at Ghent, where he delivered a very personal homage to Maurice Maeterlinck, a piece full of characters exhausted by the world of work. At the 2009 Vienna Festival, he collaborated yet again with Anna Viebrock and Stefanie Carp to develop a peripheral urban scenario for people abandoned as losers by our economic system, who sang their hearts out on their hopeless quests for personal and economic success. Loneliness can be so beautiful and indeed, when someone strikes the right tone, the starting point for 20 years of great theatre.

Till Briegleb

Productions - A selection

  • Christoph Marthaler, Anna Viebrock, Malte Ubenauf und Ensemble "Tessa Blomstedt gibt nicht auf" (i.e. "Tessa Blomstdt doesn't give up")
    2014, Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin
  • Christoph Marthaler, Anna Viebrock, Sarah Schittek, Malte Ubenauf and ensemble "Heimweh und Verbrechen" (i.e. "Home Sick and Crime")
    2014, Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hamburg
  • Eugéne Labiche, Christoph Marthaler, Anna Viebrock, Malte Ubenauf & Ensemble "Das Weisse vom Ei. Une ile flottante" (i.e. "The White of the Egg. Une ile flottante")
    2013, Theater Basel
  • Christoph Marthaler "Letzte Tage. Ein Vorabend" (i.e. "Last Days. An Eve")
    2013, Vienna Festival
  • Sasha Rau "Oh, it's like home"
    2013, Schauspiel Köln
  • Ödön von Horvath "Faith, Hope, and Charity"
    2012, Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin
  • Christoph Marthaler, Malte Ubenauf, Bendix Dethleffsen "Lo stimolatore cardiaco"
    2011, Theater Basel
  • Christoph Marthaler "+- 0. Ein subpolares Basislager" (i.e. "+-0. A Subpolar Base Camp")
    2011, Katuaq, Nuuk; Halle E im Museumsquartier, Vienna Festival
  • Christoph Marthaler "Meine faire Dame" (i.e. "My Fair Lady")
    2010, Theater Basel
  • Beat Furrer "Desert Book"
    A Music Theatre Performance after texts by Händl Klaus, Ingeborg Bachmann, Antonio Machado, Lukrez and from Papyrus Berlin 3024

    2010, Theater Basel, Berliner Festspiele (MaerzMusik) und Wiener Festwochen
  • Christoph Marthaler "Riesenbutzbach. Eine Dauerkolonie" (i.e. "Riesenbutzbach. A Permanent Colony")
    2009, Vienna Festival
  • Christoph Marthaler "Das Theater mit dem Waldhaus"
    2008, Hotel Waldhaus, Sils Maria, Invitation to the Berliner Theatertreffen
  • Alban Berg "Wozzeck"
    2008, Opéra National de Paris
  • Christoph Marthaler "Platz Mangel" (i.e. "Shortage Of Space")
    2007, Schauspielhaus Zürich, Rote Fabrik, Invitation to the Berliner Theatertreffen
  • Christoph Marthaler "Sauser aus Italien. Eine Urheberei"
    2007, Salzburger Festspiele/Ruhrtriennale
  • Giuseppe Verdi "La Traviata"
    2007, Opéra national de Paris
  • Christoph Marthaler "Maeterlinck"
    2007, Nederlands Theater (NT) Gent / Toneelgroep Amsterdam
  • Ödön von Horvath "Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald"
    2006, Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin
  • Christoph Marthaler „Winch only“ (i.e., "Winch Only")
    2006, Kunsten Festival des Arts, Brussels
  • Christoph Marthaler „Die Fruchtfliege“ (i.e., "The Fruit-Fly")
    2005, Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin
  • Richard Wagner „Tristan und Isolde“
    2005, Festspielhaus, Bayreuth
  • Christoph Marthaler/Stephanie Carp/Markus Hinterhäuser „Schutz vor der Zukunft“ (i.e., "Protection From Future")
    (Invitation to the Berliner Theatertreffen)
    2005, Vienna Festival Weeks, Vienna 
  • Christoph Marthaler "Seemannslieder" (i.e. "Sailors' Songs")
    2004, Nederlands Theatre (NT) Gent
  • Christoph Marthaler "O.T. Eine Ersatzpassion" (i.e. "Without Title. An Alternative Passion")
    2004, Schauspielhaus Zurich
  • Christoph Marthaler after Ovid "The Golden Age", together with Stefan Pucher and Meg Stuart
    2003, Schauspielhaus Zurich
  • Christoph Marthaler nach Hermann Melville "Lieber nicht. Eine Ausdünnung" (i.e. "Better not. A Thinning out")
    2003, Volksbühne Berlin
  • Elfriede Jelinek "In den Alpen" (i.e. "In the Alps")
    2002, Münchner Kammerspiele
  • Thoms Hürlimann "Synchron" (i.e. "Synchronous")
    2002, Schauspielhaus Zürich
  • Georg Büchner “Danton’s Death”
    2003, Schauspielhaus Zurich, invitation to Berliner Theatertreffen
  • Christoph Marthaler “Groundings”
    2003, Schauspielhaus Zurich, invitation to Berliner Theatertreffen
  • Christoph Marthaler after Franz Schuber “The Miller's Beautiful Daughter”
    2001, Volksbühne Berlin, invitation to Berliner Theatertreffen
  • William Shakespeare “As You Like It”
    2001, Schauspielhaus Zurich, invitation to Berliner Theatertreffen
  • Christoph Marthaler “The Experts. A Survival Tea Dance”
    1999, Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg
  • Christoph Marthaler/Jürg Henneberger “The Unanswered Question”
    1997, Basel Theatre, invitation to Berliner Theatertreffen
  • Ödön von Horváth “Kasimir and Karoline”
    1996, Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg, invitation to Berliner Theatertreffen
  • Christoph Marthaler after Lina Bögli “Lina Bögli’s Journey”
    1996, Volksbühne Berlin, invitation to Berliner Theatertreffen
  • Christoph Marthaler/Stefanie Carp “The Zero Hour or the Art of Serving”
    1995, Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg, invitation to Berliner Theatertreffen
  • Claude Debussy “Pelléas et Mélisande”
    1994, Frankfurter Oper
  • Christoph Marthaler after Johann Wolfgang Goethe “Goethe’s Faust Root 1+2”
    1993, Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg, invitation to Berliner Theatertreffen
  • Christoph Marthaler “Do Away With the European! Do Away With Him! Do Away With Him! Do Away With Him! Do Him In”
    1993, Volksbühne Berlin, invitation to Berliner Theatertreffen
  • Christoph Marthaler after Fernando Pessoa “Faust. A Subjective Tragedy”
    1992, Basel Theatre
  • Christoph Marthaler “Up the Stairs, Down the Stairs, Hooray!”
    1990, Basel Theatre
  • Christoph Marthaler “When the Alpine Mind Reddens, Kill, Free Swiss, Kill”
    1989, Basel Theatre
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