Guest Review – Oberammergau Passion Play, Passion Play Theatre

Tuesday 15 June 2010

Forgive our indulgence, but since the Oberammergau Passion Play is only put on once every ten years Phil will be far too old to go the next time it’s performed. And since the performance lasts a staggering 8 hours (including a 3 hour interval) Andrew put his foot down firmly and vetoed the idea. So it was all left up to Phil’s sister Liz, who despite protesting she hates writing essays, was bundled off on a Saga outing to Bavaria to come back with a guest review.

Yes, Saga! Of course Phil is of an age where he would qualify to go too, but only if he took Andrew as his carer, and since Andrew is not of a caring disposition that idea also fell by the wayside.

Anyhoo this is her despatch:

As the Lufthansa plane took off from Heathrow en route for Munich the young woman next to me crossed herself. Understandable as only the day before UK airports had been closed again due to volcanic ash and another BA strike had just started. I tried to keep a straight face as the other woman in the row talked about flying with Luftwaffe.

When I told my nearest and dearest I intended to see the Oberammergau Passion Play there had been mutterings along the lines of “Why? Are you turning religious?” Didn’t they remember I had seen Jesus Christ Superstar 30 years ago. And I reminded Phil that he knew the lyrics from the original soundtrack as well as I did (Oh, the embarrassment, but Lord Webber please take note – Phil).

Now the history bit. In 1633 as the Black Death swept through Europe, the village of Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps had set guards to stop entry to the village and possible infection. One night, however, a villager returned unnoticed from working in another area. He had brought the plague with him and soon over 80 people were dead. Those who could gathered in the church and vowed that if they were spared, they would perform a Passion Play every 10 years. After that there were no more deaths and they carried out their promise for the first time the followingyear. The tradition has now continued almost unbroken for nearly 400 years.

At first the play was performed in the churchyard, on top of the graves of the plague victims (Wonderful! How site-specific is that? – the eds). As it began to draw wider audiences during the nineteenth century, an auditorium was built. Nowadays the audience of nearly 5000 is under cover, but the stage is still open to the elements. All performers must have been born in the village or resident for 20 years and children from the local school may also take part. No microphones are used, but the acoustics are very good. It is also a tradition that false hair and beards are not allowed (Outrageous! Poor Richard Mawbey – the eds), so actors grow their hair and beards for a year, giving the village the faint feel of a throw-back to a 1970’s hippy commune.

The play lasts approximately 5 hours in two sessions. Previously performed in a morning and afternoon, for the first time this year it begins at 2.30 and starts again at 8, with a civilised break of three hours for dinner. Half an hour before the start of each part a horn echoes around the village and almost everybody (almost everbody? Do some leave? – the eds) streams towards the theatre.

It is not just a play; it is an experience. The story is punctuated by the appearance of a narrator and a choir of about 50, who progress onto the stage with military precision and wear robes like Time Lords. They provide accompaniment to the tableaux vivants of scenes from the Old Testament which provide parallels to the action of the play. Non-German speakers are given an English translation and anybody who paid attention in RK lessons at school will know the basic plot. The stage is vast, but often crowded with townspeople, priests, Roman soldiers and a variety of animals. A donkey, a horse, various sheep and goats, and even two camels appeared and behaved impeccably (goodness, you’re selling it to us Liz, it would have been all our Easters coming at once – the eds), but thankfully no real animals for Daniel in the lions’ den. The release of half a dozen white doves, which circled twice above the stage, led to the appearance of a buzzard, but no live sacrifices. As darkness fell bats swooped over the the heads of the front rows.

Two and a half hours without an interval sounds like a long time and I was surprised how quickly we got to the dinner break. The audience dispersed to village restaurants and were those men on bikes with long hair and beards actors off home for sustenance? Fortified with Wiener Schnitzel, Apfelstrudel (yes, the 3rd mention of Germanic desserts in as many weeks! -the eds) and a couple of glasses of Merlot (only 2 in 3 hours? -the eds) I headed back to the theatre. It got chilly and there was a moment, just after Judas had hung himself and while the choir took the stage, when the whole audience started to fidget, do up jackets, and snuggle into the blankets thoughtfully provided by the theatre. Soon it got too dark to see the text (hadn’t thought to take a torch), but the action was easy to follow.

There were some memorable performances. Judas was darkly angst and guilt riven; his hanging scene was cleverly done. Caiaphas, the High Priest, strutted amongst his fellow priests, but was smarmily sycophantic to Pilate. Pilate himself was obviously a Roman fed-up with the ways of the country he was governing and longed to be off doing some proper soldiering. Herod, a puppet king, was like a bored teenager seeking new amusement. In minor roles, the woman, taken in adultery and due to be stoned, was convincingly terrified but resigned to her fate; then when suddenly reprieved, bewildered and uncertain. At one point one of the older priests was completely off-script and mention must also be made of the camel rider who kept her seat during a long and crowded scene. The actors in the tableaux vivants kept their poses with great self-control; I only noticed one wobbly arm.

Overall impressions are of a well-managed epic performed by probably the most famous am dram group in the world. To my unmusical ear the singing and orchestra sounded note perfect and avoided sounding too operatic. The cast, from toddlers in arms upwards, gave their all and what they may have lacked in professionalism made up for with enthusiasm.

That’s Phil’s sister, Liz, the novice Whinger above, attempting the Whingers’ pose. It’s more jazz hands than Whinger but it’s a half-decent first stab.

9 Responses to “Guest Review – Oberammergau Passion Play, Passion Play Theatre”

  1. David Cottis Says:

    There’s a very nice book by James Shapiro about the Passion Play. He says that, because it’s such a large part of the place’s identity, everyone who lives there has quite a strong opinion on the show, so it’s like a whole village of theatre critics.

  2. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    Can you imagine? Shenton next door, bumping into Billington in Waitrose, Coveney in Lidl and spotting Shutters throwing open his er, shutters in the morning?


  3. Move over Whingers – Sis turns a nice phrase and happily survives certain waspish interventions. I’ve been thinking Sound of Music crossed with Ben Hur and an added touch of Glee. But what about the five chalice rating which may or may not tempt a booking for next years hols? (Yes, those alcoholic ratings are proving essential.)

  4. Lord Andrew Lloyds Slipper Sniffer Says:

    Only eight hours? That’s half a Trevor.

  5. JohnnyFox Says:

    It was like being there. I could almost taste the gugelhupf.

  6. AndreasP Says:

    Nice review. If you want to do some reading on the long tradition of English and American tourists at Oberammergau, here’s a lot of links (look for “Fremdsprachige Werke”):

    http://de.wikisource.org/wiki/Oberammergau

  7. Karen Woods Says:

    You have whetted my appetite. I am leaving in two weeks to attend the Passion Play for the fourth time. (Since this is the 41st presentation since 1634, I will have attended 10% of them.) My first visit was in 1980. Did not go to the 350th anniverary in 1984, but did attend in 1990, 2000, and soon in 2010. I’m anxious to see if I like the time schedule change to the afternoon/evening performance. When I attended, the show started at 9:00 AM, break for lunch, then resume in the afternoon. In 2000, it had been a rainy day, especially gloomy during the crucifixtion scence, but the sun came out and the resurrection scene was glorious! Are other returning for a repeat performance?

    • Helena Says:

      I’ve just got back from seeing it on Friday and it was one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in 25 years of theatre-going! Thanks, Liz, you described it so well – especially Pilate, spot on! Stayed at the hotel run by Otto Huber who adapted the text, is second Director and plays the Narrator at alternate performances, and he was so kind and fascinating to talk to. And already gearing up for 2020. Schedule change seems to work well, and the previous performance was enhanced by black skies, thunder and lightening as the Christus hung on the cross – very dramatic! Everyone should go at least once in their life, regardless of religious beliefs (or lack of).


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