As my coach joins the long convoy of other coaches on the edge of Oberammergau in southern Germany, I feel a pang of panic.
What horrors await us? Scramble at the entrance? Endless security checks?
The Passion Play has been performed in this Catholic Bavarian village every ten years since 1633, and it has been in tune with tourists since the 19th century.
Captivating: Max Davidson visits the village of Oberammergau in Germany (above) on a coach tour. ‘The passion game has been played in this Bavarian Catholic village every ten years since 1633,’ he reveals
The 2020 staging had to be postponed due to Covid which, as the original play commemorated the deliverance of the villagers from the bubonic plague, gives the 2022 performances a special thrill. Hence the crowd of tourists that swept over the village, expectation written on all faces.
For my fellow travelers Léger, visiting Oberammergau en route to Austria (I’m joining them just for three nights), this is the highlight of a ten-day itinerary. They are an endearing bunch and, as the jokes run down the coach, they could be medieval pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.
From sparkling-eyed Siobhan from Ireland, who came close to becoming a nun as a youngster, to Dave and Diane from Yorkshire, who welcomed a Ukrainian family into their home, everyone has a great story to tell – although those stories are about to pale in comparison next to the greatest story of all, as told by the villagers of Oberammergau.
Scene after scene is delivered with emotion, from Pontius Pilate’s entry on horseback to the Last Supper.
But how can a cast of amateurs, all born in the village, by long tradition, be up to such a challenge?
After an excellent lunch in a traditional German restaurant, we are taken to the large purpose-built auditorium.
At 2:30 p.m. sharp, the orchestra gets underway and a large choir, soberly dressed in black, takes the stage to sing the opening chorus. They are good, very good.
Then Jesus makes his first appearance, carried to Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday, surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd of men, women and children.
You can hear a pin drop as he begins to speak. The text is in German, but we have an English translation, so it’s easy to follow.
Never has the Bible felt more immediate or more relevant. Scene after scene is delivered with emotion, from Pontius Pilate’s entry on horseback to the Last Supper.
Actor Rochus Rueckel plays Jesus in the Passion Play. “Never has the Bible felt more immediate or more relevant,” says Max
Leger Holidays’ Oberammergau Passion Play & The Austrian Tyrol tour, departing 20 August, 10 September and 17 September 2022, costs £1,539 pp (leger.co.uk01709 470 117).
After two and a half hours, we break for dinner. Every restaurant is packed, and on the wall of ours there’s a picture of the chef playing one of the Disciples in a previous production.
The second half of the play lasts nearly three hours, but the quality of the performance is such that the audience never gets agitated.
From the trial before Pilate, watched by an indignant and agitated crowd, to the crucifixion itself, staged in harrowing detail, each scene is a triumph of storytelling.
At the end of the performance, as the huge cast melts backstage, we know they won’t be coming back for an encore. And absolutely right too.
They are not aspirants, desperate for the limelight, but ordinary villagers called to bear witness to an extraordinary life. “Wow,” whispers Siobhan, as we return to our luxury coach. It is not necessary to say more.
If you want to see the Oberammergau Passion Play, you better hurry because the performances end at the end of September and will not resume until 2030.