‘We kept our beards’: Oberammergau’s passion play stems from pandemic | Germany

fFrom his seat in the orchestra pit of the Oberammergau stage, Christian Stückl nods and points to his players above, trying to give them helpful instructions as their dress rehearsal gets underway in front of a half-full house of mostly locals.

“It’s hard to believe we’ve come this far. I keep waiting for something to go wrong, but other than a few older guys who forgot their lines, there’s really nothing to complain about,” the director says at the end of the five-and-a-half-hour show.

The director Christian Stückl at a press conference before the rehearsal
The director Christian Stückl at a press conference before the rehearsal. Photographer: Matthias Schrader/AP

The villagers of Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps are in a state of excitement. Their “passion play” – which in 1633 their ancestors swore to God they would stage every 10 years if they didn’t continue (they were) further plague deaths – is back again after being thrown off the usual schedule for two years as a result. of the latest pandemic.

The 42nd season of what is considered the oldest continuously running amateur theater production in the world, depicting the life, persecution, death and resurrection of Jesus, will open on Saturday with a run of 103 performances through October.

The piece is the village’s raison d’être. It goes without saying that nearly every one of the 5,200 eligible residents, from infants to non-peers, has a role on or off the stage. All children are allowed, as is anyone who has lived in the village for 20 years or more.

Jesus on the cross
After a two-year delay due to Covid, the passion play will be performed from May 14 to October 2. Photo: Lukas Barth/Reuters

“The last time we had to postpone was 100 years ago, because of the Spanish flu, as well as the dead and wounded from World War I, after which it was pushed back to 1922,” says Stückl. “Pandemics and the passion play have a certain tradition.”

Despite doubts as to whether it could go ahead, the customary decree was issued on Ash Wednesday last year, banning male participants from cutting their hair or shaving their beards until production closed the following October.

“Until recently, it was hard to believe that it would actually go ahead as the number of coronavirus infections had exploded, but most of us followed the rules and didn’t cut our beards in the hopes that it would still happen.” , says Werner Richter. , a taxi driver who has worked on every production since 1970. His grandchildren are among the 400 youngsters on the podium and his son, Andrew, a former Jesus and psychologist by trade, has one of the lead roles as High Priest Caiaphas.

About 400 players who signed up to participate in 2020 had to drop out, some because of changing life plans, others because of their refusal to be vaccinated or take a daily test. The Catalan donkey Sancho, on whose back Jesus would ride into Jerusalem, has been retired and replaced by the younger Aramis.

Jesus on a donkey
This year, the role of the donkey, on whose back Jesus was to ride into Jerusalem, is played by Aramis, as the previous donkey, Sancho, has retired. Photo: Lukas Barth/Reuters

“But luckily we have continuity where it matters, because most of the 42 lead roles have remained,” says Stückl.

Aside from the pandemic, his main challenge since becoming director in 1990 at the age of 24 has been to maintain the existing but aging audience while pushing the boundaries of the conservative Bavarian Catholic perspective he often viewed as limited.

He describes his greatest mission as trying to rid the passion play of the anti-Semitic view that Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus, for which it was mainly used in the Nazi era with Hitler visiting twice.

“We are now in constant and deep dialogue with religious representatives,” says Stückl. In 2010, he depicted Jesus lifting the Torah while the choir sang a version of the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael, considered a highlight of the piece by participants and spectators. This year features a new musical setting in Hebrew of Psalm 22 (“My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”) by conductor Markus Zwink, which will be released internationally on a recording of the entire two-hour soundtrack for the first time.

Jesus washes the feet of one of his disciples.
Stückl has said his biggest mission is to rid the game of the anti-Semitic view that Jews were collectively responsible for Jesus’ death. Photographer: Matthias Schrader/AP

The cast is also more diverse this year than ever, including refugee children and Muslim actors in lead roles. In the context of the play’s history, this is a radical move, and Stückl points to the storm that erupted in 1990 when he first allowed a Protestant onstage – sparking a petition from the local priest that 1,800 people signed , hoping to push the director out. He is also working on ways to empower women (married women over 35 were only allowed to participate in a court order 32 years ago). “The production is very overloaded with men,” he admits. “But then it’s a very masculine story.” He has significantly expanded the time Jesus’ mother, Mary, spent on the podium, as well as Veronica, who wipes his face, and Mary Magdalene, who is considered his closest female follower, and he has played the part of the aforementioned wife of Pilate introduced. only by a male servant who objected to the treatment of Jesus.

Frederik Mayet, the actor who plays the character of Jesus Christ, reads his script in his dressing room, outside of which is the 90 kg cross that he has to carry.
Frederik Mayet, the actor who plays the character of Jesus Christ, reads his script in his dressing room, outside of which is the 90 kg cross that he has to carry. Photo: Lukas Barth/Reuters

In his dressing room backstage of the 5,200-seat theater, 41-year-old Frederik Mayet, who alternates Jesus with another actor, displays some of his props and tools. There’s a climbing harness that fits under his loincloth and keeps him safe from the cross during the crucifixion scene, and a menacing-looking crown of thorns with blunt points. Outside, leaning against the wall, stands the three-meter-long gray wooden crucifix itself, all 90 kg, which he has to carry. “It’s as heavy as it looks,” he jokes. For Mayet — whose family first took part in the play in 1890 and whose children, aged three and eight, are on the stage with him — the eternal question, as for most Oberammergauers, is how the play remains relevant.

“As a community, our passion for the play and our courage to believe in it is unabated,” he says. “Essentially, for me, the story is less about the theological details and more about emphasizing its relevance to our experience of being human.”

Frederik Mayet's crown of thorns and the actor with whom he alternates the role, Rochus Rueckel, hang next to the wardrobe in the theater.
Frederik Mayet’s crown of thorns and the actor with whom he alternates the role, Rochus Rueckel, hang next to the wardrobe in the theater. Photo: Lukas Barth/Reuters

Mayet also played Jesus in 2010. “But now the world is a different place,” he says, referring in particular to the effects of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, increasing displacement of people and increasing ecological disasters. This time, his Jesus – led by Stückl – is “more political, angrier, one who seeks social justice.” He has looked for inspiration, he says, wherever he can find it.

It’s thanks to enterprising excursion salesman Thomas Cook, who discovered the piece for himself in 1880 and began selling passion play package tours, that it has such a large following abroad. The largest group of fans comes from the US.

Frederik Mayet as Jesus carrying the 90 kg cross.
Frederik Mayet as Jesus carrying the 90 kg cross. Photo: Leonhard Simon/EPA

But this year, the war in Ukraine has already deterred tens of thousands of Americans, who have canceled their trips to Europe. To make up for the shortage, the call was sent out to Germans to come and discover the piece.

Furthermore, the focus in the village is on getting through October unscathed. The biggest fear, widely expressed, is that both Jesuses will go down at the same time with coronavirus.

Stückl says when it’s over, he’ll go on a retreat to an ashram in India, “glad to get Jesus out of my head.”

Janina Nowotka, a hairdresser, says she will wait in the lines of men in front of her salon. “They are desperate to get their hair cut by then,” she says. “They come in and get a beer and the atmosphere is jovial and festive. And those who can’t wait just go out and cut each other’s hair.”

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