The coronavirus pandemic has, of course, cut a swathe through the cultural and sporting calendar for the next few months. Glastonbury has been postponed. The Euro 2020 football championship too. The Formula One diary has been shedding upcoming grands prix on a regular basis. But if there is one event – pulled from the schedule in recent days – that will view the ongoing crisis, if not without worry, then with a real sense of clarity, it is the collision of religion and drama that was due to return to the stage in Bavaria on May 16. The Oberammergau Passion Play has, very specifically, trodden this path before.

It is now almost four centuries since a small town that – in the wider context of Germany – is pretty but unremarkable, stood tall in the face of disease and panic, and made a promise that would come to define its future. In March 1633, the invisible threat was the bubonic plague, which had begun ravaging cities in Italy in 1629, and had now made its way into the wooded slopes and valleys on the other side of the Alps. Terrified of infection’s march, the residents of Oberammergau came together and offered a vow to God – that, were they spared, they would perform a play, recalling the life and death of Jesus, in thanks. Not only that, they would produce it again, every 10 years, in perpetuity.

The pact bore fruit. Whether you see it as the coincidental consequence of random circumstance, or divine influence, the plague largely (though not entirely) skirted the area – and the villagers kept their word. The first play went ahead in 1634, in the churchyard, alongside the graves of those who had died. News of this “deliverance” spread fast – and it soon became established convention for the Passion Play to take place in front of visitors from surrounding regions, in the summer months of every year ending in a zero. All this time later, here we are in March 2020, with epidemic again a flame of our fears, and Oberammergau – until last week – preparing to take its devout and determined stand.

The 2010 performance

2010 Getty Images/Thomas Niedermueller

The latest season – which had been due to run until October 4 – will now commence on May 21 2022. But if there is something curiously apt about this postponement – a squaring of a circle, if you will – then it is also highly unusual. Only three times in the history of the Oberammergau Passion Play has it failed to tread the boards in its appointed year. On two of these occasions, there was an obvious explanation – the 1940 incarnation was cancelled as the Second World War raged; 1920’s was delayed until 1922, in a Europe still shaking from the First World War. Only in 1770 did the event fall to anything less destructive than a global conflict – a ban on such productions laid down by Maximilian III Joseph, the then-Duke of Bavaria. That the timeline should be ruptured now is an indication that these are extraordinary times in which we are currently existing.

Even on a visit to Oberammergau, you can easily fail to appreciate its special story. It sits on Germany’s southern edge, where Bavaria begins to give way to Austria – less than 20 miles from the border by road. Even if you head in from the obvious source – Munich, 55 miles to the north-east – there is little to inform you that you are making an approach. True, the land starts to slant upwards – but even then, were you being unobservant, you might fail to spot the signposts for Kolbensattel, the tiny ski resort (just five miles of pistes) on the town’s western outskirts. Only once you pull up outside the Passionstheater on Othmar-Weis-Strasse – having trundled over the polite flow of the River Ammer, and through smart but unremarkable residential streets – do you start to realise where you are.

The surrounding landscapes are enchanting


The theatre, of course, is the 17th century’s sole concession to modernity. The graveyard swiftly became too small to contain the many prayer-reciting pilgrims – hopeful that some of the town’s salvation stardust might rub off on their shoulders – who flocked in to watch the play as the decades passed. The first permanent stage was built in 1815; a second, larger structure sprang up in the present-day location in 1830. Work on a proper theatre, with a roof and seats, began in 1890. It has been expanded and accessorised in the 130 years that have followed, but the complex that greets visitors in the 21st century is faithful to that 19th-century footprint – just bigger. It now accommodates 4,700 spectators.

In some ways, the spectacle has also changed. It has had to. As the 20th century ebbed on, accusations of anti-semitism became louder. Concerns focused on the play’s depiction of the authorities in Jerusalem – an “artistic treatment” that, traditionally, veered deep into uncomfortable territory. The stain of the 1934 production – a special 300th anniversary staging, encouraged by the new Nazi regime, and attended by Hitler – also needed to be cleansed. But, in recent years, Oberammergau has worked with Jewish groups to realign the script. Jesus’s own Jewish faith is now emphasised – and when, for example, he blesses those gathered at the Last Supper, the actor in the leading role does so in Hebrew.

The unveiling of the current cast

2018 Getty Images/Philipp Guelland

In other ways, however, the Passion Play has been altered little since 1634. It still gazes at Jesus’s final week and his steps towards crucifixion, while injecting key passages from the Old Testament into this well-known biblical narrative. It also asks commitment and patience of its audience. In the past, the running time was as long as seven hours. By 2010, this had been trimmed to a less leg-stiffening five hours, with the production running from 2.30pm to 10pm (including a meal break). Hard work – yet those on stage are not big stars of theatre; rather local actors, based in the town, who spend up to a year preparing to walk in their predecessors’ sandal-marks (villager Frederik Mayet, who will play Jesus in 2022, appeared in the 2000 and 2010 productions in less pivotal parts, and has spoken of his pride at being promoted to the top job). English translations of the text are available – but, not unexpectedly, the vast majority of the lines are spoken in German. 

Performances have been trimmed from seven to five hours


None of this discourages the hundreds of thousands of travellers who pour into the town during Passion Play season, and with five performances offered a week (every day except Monday and Wednesday) across the course of almost five months, there is more than ample opportunity to join them. The silver lining to the postponement, perhaps, is that it will allow interested parties who hadn’t realised Oberammergau’s year was again upon us to journey to southern Germany, where the 2022 play is sure to have an added poignancy.

How to see it

Full details on the play’s 2022 season can be found at

Operators that were selling tours to the 2020 production include Brightwater Holidays (01334 766 135;, Great Rail (01904 891 438;, Andante Travels (01722 671 089;, Titan Travel (0808 278 4995;, Martin Randall Travel (020 8742 3355;, Trafalgar (0808 3026016; and Tailored Travel (020 70644970; 

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