Approaching the Ammergau Alps in southern Bavaria, time seems to fade back several centuries. The houses gather their modest woodpile-skirts around them and start to blush with frescoes of rural and even biblical scenes. Monasteries proliferate, chapels pop up in the middle of fields and crosses appear on hilltops. Even shop windows begin to be populated with traditional, religiously inspired carvings — which is handy if you happen to want a life-size crucifix for your garden.

When I arrive in Oberammergau, I find that my hotel is owned by a man who spends his spare time dressing up as Pontius Pilate. For this village is gearing up to host what must be the world’s most ambitious amateur dramatic production, the Oberammergau Passion Play. This five-hour spectacular is staged only once a decade. Starting in May, it will play five times a week to a 4,500-strong audience; by the end of the five-month run it will have been seen by 500,000 visitors. Its 2,000 performers are all drawn from a local community of just over 5,000, along with a donkey, two horses, two camels, sheep, goats and a cageful of doves.

The play has a particular poignancy this year. Its origins lie in a vow made during an outbreak of plague in 1633, when village elders undertook to perform it at the turn of every decade in the hope of keeping the town free of sickness and death. This year’s show should have taken place two years ago, but the modern plague brought it to a juddering halt. Coincidentally, it’s exactly 100 years since the last two-year delay — in the aftermath of war and the 1918 influenza pandemic, the 1920 edition was pushed back to 1922.

The spectre of Covid is still very much hanging over this year’s preparations. When I meet up with Frederik Mayet, who is playing Jesus, at the back of the cavernous Passion Play theatre, he’s in discussion with the play’s director Christian Stückl. Rehearsals are progressing well, says Stückl, but they’ve hit a small hitch in that both Judases have gone down with the virus at the same time, which rather makes a mockery of the insurance policy of having two actors sharing each key role.

The Passion Play theatre
The Passion Play theatre, where the five-hour spectacular is staged © Foto Kienberger
A scene in the play where Jesus, surrounded by a crowd, enters Jerusalem on a donkey
A scene from rehearsals; Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey © Birgit Gudjonsdottir

A secondary problem is that they’ve just been told by animal welfare that they need to source a bigger donkey, to cope with this year’s Jesuses. That’s a shame, because the old donkey got so familiar with the show that he would apparently turn up at the stage door, unprompted and on time.

Chain-smoking Stückl is showing the strain of getting such a big show on the road in testing times. That’s partly because he’s doing two jobs, being also the artistic director of Munich’s Volkstheater. But the Passion Play has a long history of problems to overcome, of which Covid and undersized donkeys are just the latest manifestations.

When Stückl took over, back in 1987, he shifted what had been a daytime marathon into a more relaxed performance of two halves, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, with enough time for a leisurely dinner in between. This was to allow the cast, all of whom have to either be born in Oberammergau or have lived there for 20 years, to preserve as much of their normal daily working routines as possible.

Map of Oberammergau in Germany

There were a lot of other, sometimes awkward, traditions that Stückl felt impelled to tackle, including removing anti-Semitic sections of the text. Until 1990, married women and women over 35 had been prohibited from appearing on stage. Moreover, the village council, not the director, had ultimate control over casting the big parts, which meant that several generations of some local dynasties had become accustomed to playing the same roles.

Stückl changed all that and also cast the first Protestant actor in a major role, which prompted the local priest to invite him for a very uncomfortable cup of coffee. Happily, the council stuck by their choice of director, so the next decade the first Muslim appeared on stage, and this year there’s a Yazidi and 20 Afghan refugee children in the crowd scenes (any village children can take part, irrespective of how long they have lived in Oberammergau).

Director Christian Stückl, grey haired and bearded, smiles. We wears a blue shirt and has his hands tucked in his jeans pockets
Director Christian Stückl . . . 

Frederik Mayet, who takes the role of Jesus, sits smiling to the camera. He has long dark brown hair and a beard. He wears jeans and a black shirt
. . . and Frederik Mayet, who takes the role of Jesus

Oberammergau, with the Ammergau Alps beyond © Florian Wagner

Each innovation has been a bump in the road but “we needed to make these changes. We have freedom of religion here and the Passion Play has to reflect that,” says Stückl. “Over the years, the village council has learnt to trust me. We may fight over things in advance, but once it starts we all bond together.”

Their concern is understandable. With the whole community so invested in this once-a-decade event, both personally and economically, it is clear why every detail becomes a point of discussion. The play has a massive budget of €45mn, with a hoped-for profit of €20mn, and therefore its value to the wider community’s shops, restaurants and hotels is huge.

In the circumstances, another postponement would be a disaster. “It’s fair to say that some people will go out of business if the Passion Play doesn’t happen this year,” says mayor Andreas Rödl, who himself will be on stage — previously he has had an acting role, but this time he is a member of the choir. Despite having a newborn, he wouldn’t miss it for the world, he says, having met his future wife in the Passion Play, and his parents having also met on the Oberammergau stage. The play is an enormous part of village life. “I shall take my laptop and be mayor in the interval,” he says.

A traditional frescoed house in Oberammergau. It has pictures painted on its white walls, a veranda and a picket fence around its garden
One of Oberammergau’s traditional frescoed houses © Alamy Stock Photo
A shop window full of colourful carved wooden statuettes with religious themes
Religiously inspired carvings for sale in a local shop © Alamy Stock Photo

Another performer with a long family involvement is Anton Preisinger, proprietor of the Alte Post, a comfortable half-timbered and frescoed hotel in the centre of the village. This year his son takes the part of John and he himself is playing Pontius Pilate, although he’s previously been Judas, and his grandfather played Jesus back in 1950.

That postwar decade was a particularly emotive and soul-searching one for Germany, so “when my grandfather came back to the hotel in the interval to help with serving the meal, audience members used to fall on their knees in front of him and kiss his hands”. This spilling-over of the drama into daily life became so disruptive that eventually his grandfather had to stay hidden away in the theatre during the break.

It is by no means the first time there’s been a strong reaction to the cast among the audience, with many Americans among the 40 per cent of visitors who come from overseas. Archives tell of the time when the actor playing Judas was “boxed to the ground” in the street. Back in 1870, Bavaria’s eccentric King Ludwig gave all the main performers silver spoons — with the exception of the actor playing Judas.

Given that Oberammergau is a bit off the beaten track, 90 minutes south of Munich, almost all of the audience come here on packages that include performance, dinner and accommodation, to give them a chance to sample the region. And even without the play, there is still plenty worth coming here for.

Black and white photo of the audience and stage of the Passion Play theatre during a performance in 1910
The Passion Play in 1910 © ullstein bild/Getty

Not least is Ludwig II’s palace at Linderhof, which is a steady two-hour walk up the Ammer valley from Oberammergau. This little jewel box of a Rococo palace, completed in 1886, was the favourite residence of the king, who also created the much more epic Neuschwanstein, the model for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty castle, 30 miles west.

Compared with the extravagance of Neuschwanstein, Linderhof is discreet, cupped in landscaping that includes a fake cave containing an artificial lake complete with a wave machine, so that the king could be rocked in his swan-shaped boat while listening to music.

The interior is a riot of porcelain and gold leaf, but the detail that says most about this lonely king’s fragile state of mind is the dining room, whose table is designed to seat only one and engineered in such a way that it can be cranked up through the floor fully laden with food, thus avoiding the need for any servants to be present while he ate.

The castle at Linderhof, with the lake in front
Ludwig II’s Rococo palace at Linderhof, a two-hour walk from Oberammergau © Alamy Stock Photo

The other key destination for spiritually minded playgoers will be the Benedictine monastery at Ettal, another pleasant walk from Oberammergau. This giant baroque settlement is shoehorned into a mountain pass, so that the monks could control passing trade. These days there’s a hotel, a boarding school, a distillery and a brewery in the complex, so they still do very good business.

Back in Oberammergau on my last evening, I sneak into one of the Passion Play rehearsals. It is the scene in Bethany, where Jesus lays out his philosophy before his detractors, and most of the key actors are present. That means there’s two restaurateurs, two forest rangers, two hoteliers, two students and a shop assistant in the room, along with assorted others, but to look at them you’d think it was some kind of Hells Angels convention, the scriptural chapter: all have long hair and heavy beards, which they have been obliged to grow since Ash Wednesday.

After a couple of read-throughs, Stückl starts to tackle the scene bit by bit, teasing out meanings and interactions. The assembled rangers, restaurateurs and hoteliers hunker down and focus. Their big moment only comes around once a decade, so they want to give it their best shot.

Details

The Oberammergau Passion Play runs from 14 May to 2 October 2022. A typical two-night package, including accommodation, evening meals, entrance tickets and all local transport, costs from €364 per person (passionsspiele-oberammergau.de). Andrew Eames was a guest of the German National Tourist Office (germany.travel) and Bavaria Travel (bavaria.travel)

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