German village follows 377-year-old tradition

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In 1633, a German village vowed to put on a play about Jesus every 10 years if God rid them of the plague. This weekend, the inhabitants of Oberammergau made good on that promise once again.

And the 2010 version of the "Passion Play" keeps the tradition that only those born in the Bavarian village can take part. Otherwise you must be resident for at least 20 years or be married to a villager for 10.

More than 2,000 of the village's 5,200 inhabitants act, sing, play in the orchestra or work backstage, meaning that once a decade, and for about a year, normal life in Oberammergau is suspended.

"The tension is rising by the minute," Frederik Mayet, 30, who doubles as the play's press spokesman and one of two actors taking it in turns to play Jesus, told AFP before Saturday's premiere.

"You can really feel it in the whole village right now."

To add some biblical authenticity for the five-and-a-half-hour play, which plays five times a week until October 3, many of the men grow beards and long hair.

"You could be forgiven for thinking that Oberammergau is some sort of hippy village at the moment," said Mayet.

Organisers, making full use of the Internet and package bookings, are hoping to match 2000's 500,000 visitors from all over the world, although the recession is hitting ticket sales, particularly from the United States.

With a scandal about paedophile priests rocking Germany in recent months, as in other countries, the play is also a chance for some much-needed good publicity for the Catholic Church.

With so many of Oberammergau's inhabitants participating in some way, people are forced to take time out of their day jobs for rehearsals, which began in earnest in November.

One of the actresses playing Mary Magdelene is normally a stewardess for Lufthansa, for instance, while another Mary, Jesus's mother, works in one of the village's many gift shops.

The play begins with Jesus's entry into Jerusalem, and covers his betrayal by Judas Iscariot, his trial by Jewish elders, his crucifixion and the resurrection, all in a purpose-built theatre, some of it open to the elements.

The action, in German and some Hebrew, is complemented by a 50-strong choir, all in white robes, and by "tableaux vivants" -- scenes from the Old Testament with actors remaining completely static -- accompanied by music.

Although hardly any professionals are involved, one of the exceptions being director Christian Stueckl, 48, director of the Munich Volkstheater but Oberammergau born and bred, the performance is anything but amateurish.

And what the play might lack in professional polish is more than made up for by atmosphere and sheer scale. Hundreds of people are on stage in some scenes, in lavish costumes, with donkeys, camels, goats, sheep and even a horse.

The play has also evolved greatly over the centuries, particularly since Stueckl's first interpretation in 1990, aged just 28, when he introduced changes that have earned him hate mail from some.

"In 1990 we had a Protestant as a leading actor for the first time. The priest at the time thought the world was going to end. Today many of the actors don't even belong to the Church," he said. One of them is even a Muslim.

"At the end of the day we're all Obergammerauers, and that's what counts."

Other changes include loosening the rules about women being able to take part and portraying Judaism in a more positive light. The second half this time is in the evening for the first time, allowing more use of stage lighting.

But not everyone is over the moon with the casting.

"Actually the role I really want is Judas," jokes Mayet.

"But the guy who played Jesus in 2000 is now Judas, so I have hope."

© 2010 AFP

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