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Behind the scenes at the world’s most celebrated Passion Play

Every ten years, half the population of the mountain town of Oberammergau appears in the spectacular production

Last month a little mountain town in Germany, not far from Munich, was alive with people: hundreds of them, crowded round a noticeboard like schoolboys waiting anxiously to see the publication of examination results. But these weren’t schoolboys, and the stakes were higher than an exam grade. They were the citizens of Oberammergau, about to find out which of them had landed which roles for the Passion Play that will engulf the town in 2020 – as it did in 2010, 2000, 1990 and (with one or two exceptions and a shift in counting) every 10 years back to 1634.

It’s the most celebrated Passion Play on earth, and only people who were either born in Oberammergau or have been living there for 20 years can take part. This time around there were 2,330 applicants – roughly half the population of the town – and they will all end up onstage in some capacity or other if it’s only brandishing a spear or waving palm fronds.

Oberammergau is epic. But the key roles – Jesus, Mary, the disciples, Pilate – are the ones that everybody wants to know about. They give you television talk-show status in Bavaria. They change your life, at least for the two years of preparation and performance. Possibly beyond.

And nothing changes you like playing Jesus – a role that’s double-cast because of its demands, and will be shared in 2020 between Rochus Ruckel, a 22-year-old aerospace engineering student (which tells you something about Oberammergau’s contemporary demographic) and Frederik Meyet, a 38-year-old who works in theatre administration and has special claim to the role in that he also had it last time round in 2010.

Like almost everyone in Oberammergau, Meyet was born into the Passion culture. Before graduating to Jesus he played John – at the age of 20, with permission from the military authorities because he was in the army at the time and needed leave to grow his hair and beard. On the stage, only the Roman soldiers have short hair. Every other adult male stops shaving on Ash Wednesday of the year before the Passion Play runs, to conform with long-held views about the appearance of ancient Israelites. Which gives the country lanes of Oberammergau the likeness of a 1960s hippy happening.

More seriously, performers in the lead roles live with them so closely over such a long time that the line between performance and reality gets blurred. Stories are told of someone who played Jesus three times in the early 20th century who took to blessing people in the street. It takes a certain strength of character to keep your grounding – and to deal with the emotional assault of being crucified, not once but several times a week for three months.

“I was 52 times on the cross in 2010,” says Meyet, “hanging for 20 minutes night after night: how could that not affect me? It was physically hard if nothing else, and sometimes a truly spiritual experience, though sometimes not. But it was in the prayer at the Mount of Olives that I actually felt closest to Jesus, feeling the humanity, the unsureness about his mission. That I really could connect with. It was the most intense moment for me.”

And did it change his life? “I wasn’t the more holy for it. Those of us in the play are normal people. We go to the pub. We have another beer and wonder if we should. But playing Jesus, people look at you, see something in you. And it’s given me a different understanding – about myself and about the Church. One thing I’ve learned is that the Catholic Church is too far removed from the words of Jesus. He’s an outsider. He’s radical. Sometimes the Church doesn’t want to know this.”

As a matter of history, the play’s relationship with Church authorities has necessarily been close. It started as an act of expiation, promised in return for God delivering Oberammergau from plague (which all accounts suggest that He did). Its format – a mixture of speech, tableaux vivant and music – was developed over centuries by local clergy and Religious from assorted Augustinian and Benedictine cloisters nearby (this part of Germany is jokingly referred to as “priest corner”). And its five-hour duration acquired the status of an act of worship, receiving in more recent years the missio canonica (an official licence to teach in the name of the Church).

But tensions with the Church eventually arose, and never more so than when Christian Stückl, an exuberantly charismatic son of Oberammergau, now recognised as one ofGermany’s leading stage directors, took charge of the play in the mid-1980s. With the standard Oberammergau biography, his first experience of the play was filing on stage as a child in 1970, “when my father was High Priest, my grandfather was Herod – and being seven I was not so interested in the story but fascinated by how it worked with the nails on the cross”. In other words, he too was steeped in the culture, and it propelled him into professional theatre.

But when the play fell into his hands, he realised it needed to be, as he says, “more open. There had been so many rules about how it must be done and who could do it: you know, my father in the 1950s was barred from playing Jesus because he was married to a Protestant. Absurd or what? Until 1990 women could only take part if they were unmarried and under 35 – don’t ask me why – and we had to go to the High Court in Munich to challenge that.

“But worst of all was the text, which people refused to change because they thought it wasn’t so much theatre as Holy Mass. Well, sometimes Holy Mass can be very boring. And not only was it boring, it was anti-Semitic – much as it had been since 1934 when Hitler approved it as Reichswichtig: good for the Reich.

“No one any more wanted to speak about Hitler, but the text was still largely there, talking up the intelligence of Pilate and telling you how bad the Jews were. It was scandalous, attracting international criticism, and it had to change.”

In fact, these issues hadn’t passed unnoticed by the Church’s hierarchy. In the wake of Vatican II, the then Archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Julius Döpfner, insisted that “the Play is not about … collective guilt on the part of Jews but about the failure of the new Israel – that is, the Church”. But even then nothing much changed at Oberammergau, until Stückl fought, and carried on fighting, through the Passions he directed in 1990, 2000 and 2010.

The 2020 Play – his fourth in charge – will be conspicuously different to the one he took on 30 years ago. To start with, its assistant director will be a born and bred Oberammergauer who just happens to be Muslim. The cast will embrace people of all denominations, genders, sexual orientation and ages (the oldest being 96, here’s hoping). And both text and music have been overhauled.

“I tell the priests in Oberammergau, with whom I have interesting exchanges, this is your big chance,” says Stückl. “For a whole year people will only talk about your story. Make it understandable, meaningful, human, so the audience can really feel who Jesus was. In 2020 the Passion will play for 104 performances to a total audience of half a million. It will be discussed on radio and TV across half the world. That’s some responsibility. But what an opportunity as well.”

The Oberammergau Passion Play runs from May 16 to October 4, 2020. Booking is now open (tickets/hotels sell out quickly). Visit passionplay-oberammergau.de