THE BEARDS ARE SHAVED, THE OBERAMMERGAU PASSION PLAY 2020 HAS BEEN POSTPONED BY TWO YEARS. BUT THE TEAM AROUND DIRECTOR CHRISTIAN STÜCKL IS ALREADY IN THE MIDST OF PLANNING, THE ADVANCE TICKET SALES HAVE BEGUN
The cancellation due to corona was a shock at first. When did your courage increase again?
Christian Stückl (CS): At first I didn't know exactly how I should react. For us it was clear that it would not be enough to postpone the Play until 2021: reversing 450,000 tickets and then selling them again is simply not possible within this short period of time. Postponing the Passion Play until 2022 was the right step. At the moment we are optimistic that we can perform the Play in front of a full audience in 2022. The advance sales have started very well again. Perhaps the situation will have resolved a little when I start rehearsals on stage again in January 2022.
Markus Zwink (MZ): I was not only sad about the decision from above, but also relieved, because the last rehearsals, where I had tried to motivate people, even though it was long ago clear to me that it would not go on, were very tough and felt somehow dishonest. The fact that we, the three conductors, met in the meantime and polished the score, so that the Passion was not completely out of focus, was very good for me. As soon as it was possible, I initiated rehearsals, because people have to stay in training with a view to 2022.
Stefan Hageneier (SH): When there were indications that there might indeed be a cancellation or postponement, I remembered that the 1920 Play was postponed to 1922. That made it even more surreal: history cannot repeat itself identically exactly 100 years later! Now it has happened, and we still don't know if we can perform the Play in 2022 as normal.
How do you deal with the mass of performers?
CS: That is a difficult point. According to current regulations, an actor needs ten square metres of space - which means that in Oberammergau only 80 performers could be on stage at the same time. One can of course imagine playing the Passion with fewer people. Around 1900 there were about 650 actors - today we have 2,400, including the children.
MZ: In the orchestra pit, which admits 60 people, we would only have 15 musicians with the distances that have to be kept at the moment. With the choir, which we have increased to 64 people, we might have to return to the number of 2010, i.e. 44, and simply rotate more often. But of course we hope to be able to play and sing with our full cast in 2022.
SH: In the case of the Living Pictures we could keep the distances. Although some of them, for example "The Bronze Serpent", also live from the large number of people in the picture. Measured by the mass of performers, however, we generally have far too small dressing rooms and corridors.
Does this mean you have to completely redesign and rework the production?
SH: So far I'm hoping for vaccinations or improved and simplified testing. At Burgtheater I just did a production where the whole team was tested weekly. In return, they were allowed to act on stage as usual without any distance.
CS: The planning is a challenge, because it is not yet possible to foresee which requirements will apply in two years. But one thing is certain: we will perform the Play, fulfil our vows and continue the tradition of the Passion Play.
SH: To be able to perform the 2022 Passion Play under "normal" conditions: I think that is quite a redeeming thought. Many of our spectators would probably perceive it the same way.
The Musical Director Markus Zwink, the Play Director Christian Stückl and the Stage and Costume Designer Stefan Hageneier (photo: Gabriela Neeb)
Does the current global political situation also influence your thoughts in terms of content?
CS: It is no longer enough for me that Jesus says fine words. "Why do you not understand my words? Why do you not change?" These are almost pleading sentences of Jesus, a rage against the world. His mission is actually a failed mission, because after 2000 years of Christianity, we still have not put his messages into practice. In the current crisis almost all other issues are missed out. I don't feel that Corona makes us better, that we think more about religious things, about God. And meanwhile all the other problems are growing without us really being able to act.
MZ: Theatre is possibly always a bit political - our Play certainly is.
CS: We played the Passion of Jesus out of tradition. But actually we first have to play the life story of Jesus. You accept it all, you always have the end in mind, you know he dies on the cross. But why? So with every Passion the intention will be to contribute towards a more political point of view.
Identification or irritation - Messiah or anti-hero? What is more important to you?
CS: Jesus is not a clear identification figure. He raises questions and is meant to irritate. Nevertheless, of course you have to be able to keep up with the character in the Play.
SH: I saw Robert Wilson's "Messiah" in Salzburg - an astronaut appears during resurrection. We've already got that far! [Laughter]
Does the figure of Jesus still hold mystery despite that close involvement?
CS: You always think: a more human Jesus? - Yes, but what does that actually mean? How crude Jesus could become, how much humour did Jesus have, how stubborn was he? It's totally crazy how the character leaves you puzzled when you ask yourself how Jesus would react today: in a time when the gap between rich and poor is widening, when refugees wander the world and are marginalised, when "love among people is growing cold". The most important aspect for me is that Jesus goes to the edges of society and cares for those who are excluded. Maybe this Jesus we try to grasp has a lot to do with ourselves. Therefore it is very important that everything Jesus says is anchored in the here and now.
Tradition or change - to what extent do you ask yourself this question every time?
SH: I've often heard the question from the professional theatre world: "So, are you doing it really modern?!” Then we must rather defend our approach and explain why it is simply completely different in Oberammergau. For me, the question has not yet arisen as to whether it is better to show Jesus in today's clothes, so that it perhaps appears more superficially contemporary. The examination of the world of images in Christian art history still appeals to me more than a superficial transfer.
CS: There is an unspoken agreement that the costumes and the stage set are to be used in some kind of historicising way. That one does not completely reinvent Jesus in the texts, but orientates oneself towards the material of the gospels. Nevertheless, a lot has of course happened. We already feel free, but in the basic structure we deal with the tradition that has been developed over the decades.
Does the change in one's own perspective also play a role?
CS: Of course, your own change is also reflected in the Play. We cannot stand still. Our profession requires us to question ourselves anew, to deal with the entirety of it again and again.
What is your motivation to deal with the Passion Play contents again and again?
MZ: I consider it important to question certain situations again and again. For example, the term Ecce Homo, which was pre-shaped by the church and actually only means: "Behold the man". Perhaps in the Play one comes to other interpretations than the conventional ones. Even if the spectator does not agree with these interpretations, he or she has at least dealt with them.
SH: I think it's right that we tell the story as forcefully as possible - and don't put so much energy into obviously transferring it into today. The message must come from the story itself. That's what I find the theatrical part about it.
CS: For me, it is important to have a dialogue with the performers. I enjoy introducing them to the story, continuing it, pushing it further. As an adolescent, I experienced how the Catholic Church sent theologians and priests to Oberammergau to give private lessons in religious matters in the run-up to the Passion Play. The performers then sat in our inn with a beer and listened to some kind of lecture. I did not want that.
Are you already thinking about the future of the Passion Play? About the next generation?
CS: Yes, we have invested a lot of energy over three or four Passion Plays. Everyone is having a lot of fun with it. But I would like to see one of the young generation stand up and carry on the idealistic value.
SH: If you want to continue the Passion Play on a certain level and continue to generate so many spectators, you will have to professionalise it further. Nevertheless, the core of amateur theatre must be preserved.
CS: We all have people around us whom we foster to this end. Perhaps we can also rely on tradition in this respect. The Passion Play holds the people of Oberammergau together. So: It will go on.
Interview: Teresa Grenzmann
Photo: Gabriela Neeb