(Kate Connolly’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/14/22; Photo: Frederik Mayet as Jesus Christ in the 42nd Oberammergau passion play. Photograph: Lukas Barth/Reuters.)
In 1633 the Bavarian village vowed to stage its play every 10 years if it survived the plague. It did then and has again
From his perch in the orchestra pit of the Oberammergau stage, Christian Stückl nods and points to his players above, trying to offer them helpful instructions as their dress rehearsal to a half-full house of mainly local people gets under way.
“It is hard to believe we’ve got this far. I keep waiting for something to go wrong, but apart from a couple of older men forgetting their lines there’s really nothing to complain about,” the director says at the end of the five-and-a-half-hour show.
The villagers of Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps are in a state of excitement. Their “passion play” – which in 1633 their forebears vowed to God they would stage every 10 years if they were spared further deaths from the plague (they were) – is back again after having been thrown off its usual schedule by two years owing to the latest pandemic.
Depicting the life, persecution, death and resurrection of Jesus, the 42nd season of what is believed to be the oldest continuous running amateur theatre production in the world will open on Saturday with a 103-performance run until October.
The play is the village’s raison d’etre. It is taken for granted that almost every one of the 5,200 residents who is eligible, from babies to nonagenarians, plays a part either on or off the stage. All children are allowed, as is anyone who has lived in the village for 20 years or more.
After being postponed for two years due to Covid, the passion play will be performed from 14 May to 2 October.
“The last time we had to delay was 100 years ago, due to the Spanish flu, as well as deaths and injuries from the first world war, after which it was rescheduled for 1922,” Stückl says. “Pandemics and the passion play have a certain tradition.”
Despite misgivings over whether it would be able to go ahead, the usual decree went out on Ash Wednesday last year, forbidding male participants from cutting their hair or shaving their beards until the production closed the following October.
“It was hard for us to believe until recently that it would actually go ahead as the coronavirus infection rate had exploded, but most of us stuck to the rules and didn’t cut our beards in the hope it still would,” said Werner Richter, a taxi driver who has taken part in every production since 1970. His grandchildren are among the 400 youngsters on stage and his son, Andreas, a former Jesus and a psychologist by profession, has one of the lead roles as the high priest Caiaphas.
About 400 players who had signed up to take part in 2020 were forced to drop out, some due to changing life plans, others owing to their refusal to be vaccinated or to take a daily test. The Catalan donkey Sancho, on whose back Jesus was due to ride into Jerusalem, has gone into retirement, replaced by the younger Aramis.