By Lianne Kolirin
Four centuries ago, the Catholic residents of a Bavarian village pledged to perform a play of “the suffering, death and resurrection” of Jesus once every decade if God spared further suffering from the bubonic plague.
The villagers fulfilled their promise for the first time in 1634 and, according to legend, there were no further deaths.
The villagers’ commitment has endured ever since — until a new plague, Covid-19, struck in 2020 and the play was put on hold. This month, the five-hour Oberammergau Passion Play will be staged once again.
The 42nd instalment of the play will involve almost half the village’s population — more than 1,800 people, including 400 children — acting out the story of Jesus of Nazareth in the village’s open-air theatre.
The theatrical production about Jesus’s last five days before crucifixion had been due to open in the spring of 2020 but was postponed. Now almost half a million visitors are expected to flock to Oberammergau for performances between 14 May and 2 October.
Christian Stückl, who he has been in charge of proceedings for more than 30 years, will again direct the play.
“Just a few weeks ago, many could not believe that the Passion Play would premiere,” he told Associated Press. “We don’t know what Covid-19 will do, if there will be another wave. But we have an endless desire to bring our passion play back to the stage and we are highly motivated.”
The actors, who must be either Oberammergau natives or residents for more than 20 years, have been testing for the virus before every rehearsal and will continue to do so for each of the 103 performances. And as tradition dictates, they have been letting their hair and beards grow for over a year.
The production has undergone something of a 21st-century makeover. Until the 1990s, when Stückl took over as director, performers had to belong to one of the two main German churches, Roman Catholic or Lutheran. These days the cast is made up of many religions and of non-believers too.
Organisers have also worked with an American rabbi on how to strip out the play’s antisemitic content. The play will no longer depict the Jews as Christ’s killer and will clearly show that Christ himself was Jewish.
“Let there be no doubt: in Oberammergau, in the play, antisemitism has no place, and it has no place in the lives of the performers either,” Stückl said.