Every 10 years in term- E time between May and October, in the small Bavarian town of Ober- ammergau, lessons are timetabled around the local ama- teur drama activities. But then so is everything else for, since 1634, a high percentage of the inhabitants has been involved in the decadal Passion Play.
This year's produc- tion is employing more than 2,000 people, almost half of the town's inhabitants.
Tickets for the Oberammergau Passion play are more difficult to come by than for any world-class sporting event: by last September three million applications had already been received for the half a million seats available.
But British school groups have a unique opportunity to attend the millennial production, half reli- gious ritual and half mega tourist event, as the school tours com- pany PGL has block-booked the local youth hostel.
Since Ash Wednesday last year, according to tradition, the male cast members have been growing their hair and beards, so for months local people have been having their pensions issued and drains unblocked by biblically hirsuite characters. Only bona fide villagers may take part and many families have a long tradi- tion of doing so. Ursula Burkhart, for instance, a children's nurse who is cast as Mary Magdalene, played the Virgin Mary in 1984 and 1990.
Her brother Anton, a forester, shares the part of Christ with a local government officer, while her other brother, Stefan, played Pilate in 1990 and is Caiaphas the priest this year.
The actors were chosen early last year, two for each part so that some semblance of normal life is maintained, to play all the charac- ters in Christ's life during his last week on Earth y as well as a few visitors from the Old Testament.
The story of the play began in 1633. Europe had been ravaged by the Thirty Years War and the Black Death followed in its wake, spread by solders returning home. Oberammergau isolated itself, but one villager slipped in secretly and 84 people out of the population of 600 died in conse- quence. The surviving villagers made a vow that if the plague stopped they would re-enact the Passion every 10 years as an act of thanksgiving. After this, not a sin- gle person died and the first Pas- sion Play tmk place in 1634.
Other villages, perhaps as many as 300, had a similar tradi- tion, but few survive and none has maintained an unbroken link with the 17th century. The first "Cook's Tour" made a pilgrimage there from England in 1871.
Changes to the ancient script are hotly debated, but it has evolved and includes a Chorus comment- ing on the action and tableaux in which the actors freeze to hold a moment. It is easy to see how, like the Medieval Mystery Plays in England, the German Passion play was once a means of teaching the Bible to the illiterate masses.
Telling the story of Christ's entry to Jerusalem, the Last Sup- per, Passion and Resurrection (with cameos from characters such as Adam and Noah) takes all day, from 9am to 530pm, with a three-hour lunch break.
Such is the fame of Oberam- mergau that tickets are booked years in advance.
A million vtsi- tors are expected for this special year and villagers will rent out rooms while they make do (rather suitably) in stables.
* The Oberammergau Passion Play takes place three times a week between May and October. PGL offers week-long tours (combined with a visit to the Tyrol or Rhineland). Places are limited but groups of 45 can take five staff members free of charge. Small parties can combine with another school. Travel is by coach.
PGL School Tours, Alton Court, Penyard Lane, Ross on Wye, HR9 5GL. Tel: 01989 764342.
The best way to make enquiries about Expo 2000 is via the website: www.expo2000.de or tel: 00 49 2000. A family ticket (two adults, two children) is around pound;66 for a day. Reduced rates for school groups, students and under-6s.