A promise made 384 years ago is about to be honoured anew, as Christ is crucified, dies and is raised again in a village in southern Germany. Joanna Moorhead tells the tale, and talks to the actor who plays Jesus.
The village of Oberammergau defines chocolate-box Bavaria: blue mountains, snow-topped in spring, rise up behind the colourful houses, and Alpine flowers sing from the window boxes. It’s a place where you feel lucky to be. But that certainly wasn’t how it was for its inhabitants on a winter’s day in 1633. The bubonic plague had just arrived, and fear licked round every doorway.
In this deeply Catholic area, there were plenty of prayers; but one of the townspeople had another thought. How about, instead of simply asking God for help, they struck a bargain with him? How about if they promised him something, if the village was saved?
What, though, could they promise? History doesn’t record who came up with the answer, but one of the inhabitants did. If God brought the village safely through the plague, they and their descendants would perform a play about the death and resurrection of Christ, every decade, in perpetuity.
You can guess the next bit of the story: the village was spared, and the villagers set about preparing for the first production of their play. Almost everyone was involved, and people from the villages around were invited to watch it.
Three hundred and eighty-four years on, the 42nd production is about to swing into action. But instead of the audience being drawn mostly from the surrounding area, people travel from all parts of the globe to see it. From May until September more than 450,000 people, the majority from outside Germany, will watch 102 performances in the specially-built, vast, Passion Play Theatre.
More than half of the village’s inhabitants are directly involved in the play – that’s more than 2,000 people – and to qualify, they need to either have been born there, or have lived there for at least 20 years. All those who take part – and many others in solidarity – stop cutting their hair, or shaving, more than a year before the opening night. ‘Everyone in the village has long hair now – it’s quite funny, and it’s a big part of the preparation,’ says Frederick Mayet.
Frederick’s part couldn’t be more pivotal in the 2020 Oberammergau play: he’s one of two actors who’ll play Jesus, which he describes as ‘the honour of a lifetime’. Rehearsing has been going on for a long time now – but it’s about more than just learning the lines. ‘All the time I’m thinking about how to bring Jesus alive on stage: what people are expecting, and how I can deliver it,’ he says. ‘In the Bible it says Jesus is both fully human and fully God. Well, we know it’s not possible to bring God to the stage – so we know we have to bring Jesus in a way that shows his deity.’
Part of his preparation for the part included a trip to the Holy Land at the end of last year. ‘Seeing the place where Christ lived, being in the places he knew, was hugely important. We had a priest and a theologian with us, and we were able to have lots of discussions about the story, in the original sites where the important moments took place.’
The most crucial aspect of the production is making the story relevant to a 21st century audience. ‘We have looked for where Jesus was talking about social problems, the poor; what he says about it being harder for a camel to go through a needle than a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Because he’s talking about a world where there are many poor people and a few rich people, and that’s something that seems very true today. Also, Christ’s emphasis on welcoming people – welcoming foreigners especially – that’s such a hot topic for us right now. He’s very clear about how we should treat others, and that’s something we’ve put more to the fore in this year’s play.’
Like most people in Oberammergau, Frederick, who is 40, was raised as a Catholic – and taking part in the play has helped him in his own personal faith. ‘In this area, we’ve had the same problems that the Catholic Church is having around the world, with abuse and so on. And I think this play is a reminder that the story is different from the Institution; and if you learn about Jesus and what he said, you discover what he says about the hierarchy and the Pharisees. I think the Institutional Church needs to focus on that message.’
Every play begins with a prayer; and the spirit of the play imbues the whole community, says Frederick. ‘We’re a very strong community, and the tradition of the play seems to bind the generations together. We’re not perfect – sometimes, there are arguments about how to produce the play, what to emphasise and so on. We’re not holier than anyone else. But this is something that includes us all, with a message of such hope and love at its centre, and that’s bound to make a difference.’
Because of the play many of the villagers have a strong interest in theatre – including Frederick, whose day job is as artistic director of a theatre in Munich. He’s given time off to take part; but for some actors, including the woman who plays Mary and who works as a flight attendant, it’s tricky to wrap the demands of being involved around working life. ‘In the past, when more people worked in the area on farms and so on, it was easier,’ says Frederick. ‘But the reality of modern life makes it harder – but still, we manage to do it.’
For Frederick it’s a second chance to play Christ, whom he also played in 2010; and in 2000 he was in the play for the first time, as the apostle John. But what’s especially important for him this year is that he’s now a father; he and his wife have two sons aged five and one, and the eldest one will take part in some of the performances. Seeing his father on the cross, and then witnessing his character being restored to life, will be a memory he’ll never forget.
So how does it feel – how can it feel – to be hanging on a cross? It’s a truly incredible experience, says Frederick. ‘You’re there half naked, in front of 5000 people. You’re exposed, you’re extremely uncomfortable…you get a small idea of how cruel and brutal this event was, 2000 years ago.’ It’s inevitably, he says, the most solemn moment in the performance. ‘It’s always completely silent in the auditorium. Everyone is touched, everyone is moved.’
And then, a little while later, comes another of the hardest parts for the play to show: the resurrection. The play ends with that scene and it is, says Frederick, one of the most important memories for the audience to take away. Because Christ doesn’t only die in Oberammergau: he is raised from the dead there, too. And it’s that message, surrounded by the beauty of the Bavarian countryside and this charming village, that makes its visitors feel so lucky, and so alive.