Posted: None | Last Update: 15. Jan 2023
The world famous Passion Play in Oberammergau is a biblical theatre performance dating back almost 400 years to 1633, when the Black Plague raged through central Europe and made no exception in Oberammergau, a little town in the German Alps, claiming the lives of over 80 citizens in as little as one year. In their desperation, the people of Oberammergau made a pledge to perform the life, suffering and death of Jesus in a Passion Play if God would spare them further plague deaths. From the moment of said vow, no more deaths were reported and thus in 1634 the first Passion Play was re-enacted by the local citizens. To this day, on a ten year cycle, the pledge is kept alive and the Passion Play has since gained world renown.
The performance takes place in two acts (2:30-5:00pm + 8:00-10:30pm) in the Oberammergau Passion Play theatre that is the biggest roofed ‘open air’ arena in the world and has been named a heritage site as of 2020. It seats up to 4400 spectators per show. The stage itself is open air (can be roofed if weather requires) and has a half hidden orchestra pit underground.
Over 2100 staff consisting of cast, choir and helpers (all of them locals to Oberammergau, having to be either born in the village or have lived there for at least 20 years) make this theatre performance a truly awe inspiring experience (even for non-religions heathens like me). The performance is in German, but you can get the booklets to read along in many more languages.
We were truly blessed with the weather, affording us a deep blue cloudless sky during the afternoon performance and the most scenic pink sunset backdrop during the second act. We were equally blessed with the most amazing seats in the front centre, giving us a very close look on the actors and choir (up to roughly 200 people could be on stage at any one point depending on the scene, the choir alone were about 75) as well as the two camels, two horses, nine sheep, six goats, one donkey, several chicken and a number of pigeons. Each scene would fade out with a performance of the choir and a very creative ‘living painting’ where a specific scene from the Old Testament was being re-enacted by (static) actors and a superb stage set.
As I mentioned earlier, the actors, extras, choir, orchestra and backstage staff are all local to Oberammergau and range in age from a few months old to almost 100 years. There is a tradition around hair and beard having to be grown out starting on Ash Wednesday of the year previous to the play.
For about 60% of the on stage performers this is the first experience with playing theatre, so it is to this day an amateur theatre. However, you really wouldn’t be able to tell, it was done so incredibly professionally that we were all blown away. There are 110 performances this year from May 14th to October 2nd and a total of 440’000 tickets have been sold already, with only a few leftovers remaining for sale. Visitors come from near and far, we saw not only locals but groups and pilgrimage travellers from the US, Canada, the Philippines etc.
I was originally confused that after the show the actors wouldn't come back on stage for the final applause, but I have since learnt this is traditionally the case for passion plays and historical enactments, as it is supposed to be about the story and not the actors.
My verdict: even as a non religious person this event is totally worth visiting for the performance, the stage set, the costumes and the music. I also want to stress that the play itself is not, as I secretly feared, some kind of sermon giving you the impression you are at church.
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