Performing Passion

In fulfilment of a vow made four hundred years ago, the villagers of Obeammergau in Bavaria, Germany perform a Passion Play every ten years. Member Stephen Ashcroft was lucky enough to see this year's production.

Right on cue, a burst of schoolchildren scampered across the stage. One lost her sandal. Without a moment's hesitation, she turned, ran back, picked it up and ran off after her colleagues.

In some ways, this for me typifies the Oberammergau Passion Play: the sense of controlled spontaneity, the enthusiasm, the way the whole village, from youngest to oldest, is involved.

As an example of the last point, take the family with whom Valerie and I stayed (you don't choose where you stay – you are assigned a room, just as you are assigned a seat in the theatre; we were lucky to have seats in the middle of the third row, and lucky to stay with the Wolf family). Mr and Mrs Wolf were both in the crowd scenes, some of which involve several hundred people (ten years ago they had larger parts). Their daughters were in the choirs, and their sixteen-month-old grandson came on stage with his grandmother. He wasn't the youngest cast member, though.

There was a tiny babe in arms and an equally young donkey trotting behind its mother – at the beginning of the season, there was only one donkey, but she was in foal. Link to large image
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Frau Wolf told us a lot about the play. She described how there are drama competitions five years before to show up the good actors; how when the cast lists are published the arguments really start (but the Director's decision is final); how on a given date the men must stop shaving so it can be seen how their beards grow, but how those cast as Romans must then shave again; how the principals rehearse for eighteen months, and the extras for six; and how some people move into the village and live there for years to qualify for consideration. She also described how the actors playing Christ and the crucified thieves have to be very fit to hang on the crosses with only tiny wooden brackets to support hands and feet. Christ is lowered from the cross by means of a long strip of linen. Is it because paintings show it done this way? No, it's because in 400 years no better way has been found – the play authenticates the pictures.

Although the play dominates the village, village life goes on despite the play. Actors with "bit" parts leave work to appear on stage, and then return to work. Corpus Christie is still celebrated, King Ludwig II's birthday is still marked by bonfires and fireworks on the mountains (he delayed a war so that the play could be performed).

And it's more than just a play. The village has kept faith with its traditions. There is no amplification. No artificial lighting. And there is no roof over the stage. The audience may sit in (comparative) comfort in a fine new theatre, but the cast still perform outdoors, at the mercy of the elements; one cold day this year Christ on the cross actually turned blue.

But most of all, it is a religious activity. The performance lasts all day (with a long lunch break), but passes more quickly than many two-hour performances I've seen. That, however, is beside the point. I can't really describe how the play affected me – and everyone else I know who's seen it. You'll have to go and find out for yourself…in 2010. Maybe I'll see you there.

Stephen Ashcroft

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