Oberammergau Passionsspiele – Theater of Defocusing. A Review

Musician and performer Neil Luck visited the 2022 edition of Oberammergau Passionsspiele, a passion play that has been brought to the stage every decade (with some exceptions) since 1634. What interests Luck in this five-hour theater epic is the blurring of the boundaries between amateurism and professionalism, body and disembodiment, persona and non-persona, staging and real life, and the usages of musical traditions ranging from between Baroque oratorio to »quasi-pastiche German Romantic music« – all strategies of blending, blurring, and defocusing that make the play timeless, integrated, and efficient.

by Neil Luck — Feb 7, 2023

In September last year, I made a trip to see the Oberammergau Passionssspiele (Passion Play); a staging of the Passion held every ten years since the early seventeenth century in a small Bavarian town, realized and performed by a team of hundreds of locals both on and off stage. The play runs over the summer months and is set in a huge purpose-built playhouse that is partially open-air, revealing a backdrop of mountains looming heavily above the broad stage. In two acts lasting more than five hours, the play is genuinely epic. Townspeople appear as actors on stage in throngs. The sun sets, towering crucifixes are erected, and scenes are broken up by painterly tableaux vivants accompanied by a full symphony orchestra and choir.

Audiences travel from around the world to Oberammergau as a kind of modern-day pilgrimage site. My interest in the play, however, stems from what it represents as an essentially amateur performance. The scale of the play is undeniably impressive, but the way the production lives symbiotically with the structure, life, and community of the town and its people also lends it a quasi-ritualistic energy. In my own work I’m fascinated by that kind of energetic state – a complex, conditional, bespoke sort of potential outside of professional institutional stakes and institutions that can result in a genuinely transformative spectacle. Specifically, I think about the Passion Play as a theatre of defocusing, constantly questioning our relationship to, and expectations of what is happening in front of us, within its almost uncontainable scale.

The play is bafflingly anachronic. It is of course a biblical tale, but its telling stems from the seventeenth century and draws on a Renaissance, painterly compositional balance in its staging. Musically, it presents as something akin to a Baroque Oratorio,1 but is scored by quasi-pastiche German Romantic music. This all adds up to a very peculiar type of »timelessness« in the production; a hazy, archetypal sense of »the past,« or »the classical« in affect, but one that is oddly placeless. This doesn’t feel jarring though, more like the strata of many ideas, materials, peoples, practices, and tastes that have accreted over time. One can feel many hands at play in its fish-eye historical perspective.

It’s overwhelming, that palpable historical »weight,« and it’s an overwhelm matched in the many crowd scenes that the play is famous for. At several points during the Passion, the stage is flooded with humanity; hundreds of people of all ages entering as a sudden mass of bodies. All the performers are local but any individual »amateurishness« is absorbed into these Brueghelian seas of activity. The more directed actors playing Christ, Judas, and the Apostles get lost in these crowds; they’re not dressed any differently to the masses, and most of the men on stage have been growing their beards for a year or so. We can detect their presence through their disembodied, subtly amplified voices, but we’re invited to be inattentive as viewers, taking in the entire landscape of the stage where the borders of amateur/professional, persona/non-persona are indistinguishably merged.

The stage avoids any kind of obvious technological spectacle, but as container of theatrical presences it is frequently questioned and subverted. The presence of children on stage playing, or the many animals (sheep, horses, camels) shuffling around, eating, and sniffing draws and distracts our attention. The setting of the sun toward the moment of crucifixion, and the mise-en-abyme chambering of the Last Supper with a simple, huge piece of cloth alter our perspectives in ways that feel like the articulations of a »poor« theater. Indeed, there are no spotlights, footlights, or addresses to the audience and so this naturalistic and candid approach to presentation sweeps us into the Passion in a hypnagogic rather than crisply lucid manner. Everything plays out as almost real-time exposition, it’s grand length evaporating into the natural rhythms of the day. During my visit in September, as the evening got later, the sky darker, and the narrative more violent the children disappeared from the stage (presumably it was past their bedtime). The row of nuns seated behind me excused themselves (presumably they knew what was coming), and after the final moments of death and resurrection the remainder of the cast, choir, and orchestra dispersed with no curtain call, back into town, back to home.

The play plots an imprint, and afterglow; a slow crossfade from in-to, to out-of character. A profound, permeable meniscus that I read as a clear articulation of faith – the Passion as a real historical truth, the performers engaging in deep and sincere sympathy with the story, and the painfully human figure of Christ presented on stage.

The sentiment and its articulation certainly felt real in the audience, and it’s this profound hovering between what is staged and what is real that defocuses us as audience members in a manner that’s more akin to a ritual than a theatrical performance. It is deeply bound up with the machinations of everyday life, for the performers but also for us. We travel for days, we structure in our dinner breaks, we get tired, we sleep. This process is almost dream-like and we are forbidden from taking photos – no hard memories remain. This hyper-real, life-integrated mode of performance is where its power and pathos lies – the presentation of »real people« doing »real things« for »real reasons.« Maybe this is a theater of efficacy rather than paucity, transfiguration rather than entertainment.

Neil Luck is a British composer, performer, and director based in London/UK. His works frame the act of music making as something curious, weird, useful, or spectacular in and of itself. As a fellow in the sphere of practice »Aural & Physical,« he works and lives at Akademie Schloss Solitude from July 2022 until March 2023.

  1. Oratorios are semi-staged, but restrained musico-dramatic religious works, drawing on biblical texts, and alternate sung solos, choruses, and instrumental interludes.

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