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A passion to fit the new millennium

THE long-haired bearded chaps you see around Oberammergau are likely to be actors in the millennium production of the world-famous homespun Passion Play. For example, the gorgeously caparisoned Caiaphas - a superb actor - was spotted back at work selling shirts during the play's three-hour lunch break.

Some 2,200 villagers are involved - actors, musicians, directors, costumiers, technicians, stagehands, representing nearly half the population of 5,000.

Toddlers take part on their grandparents' shoulders. The whole primary school is involved in turns. A third of the 200 pupils are on stage with their teacher in the great crowd scenes which start and end each performance day.

To be eligible, you must be born in the village, or have lived there for 20 years, or attend the primary school. Even four-footed thesps - the flock of sheep and goats, donkey and the centurion's horse - must have local credentials.

Doves hatched in Unterammergau need not apply. Some consternation the day of our visit - first day on the boards for a new donkey, the last inexplicably having become pregnant.

Our student coach driver on the trip from this woodcarvers' dream of a Bavarian village to Munich airport was recruited a year ago in the local pub, as part of a drive to involve more of the young by assistant director Otto Huber (four of whose ancestors were in the 1680 production). Originally to be a Roman soldier and flogger of Christ, Andy was promoted to the small speaking part of Archelaus, member of the Sanhedrin.

This is a new production for millennium year, with brilliant costumes and settings. Modernisation of the traditional text was hard-won by wunderkind director Christian Stuckl, in the face of resistance from the custodians of the play's intellectual property rights, Oberammergau town coucil.

Married women and women over 35 were permitted on stage only for the first time in 1990: a state of affairs that traditionally led to Mary often appearing considerably younger than her Son. This year there are also a good handful of Muslim (Turkish guestworker) participants.

For this is no medieval mystery play, no nostalgic folksy drama gelled in the aspic of history. The sense of evolution, universality and millennium relevance is palpable. No person has the right to stand in judgment: in any one of us there lurks something of Pilate, Herod, Judas.

Stereotyping is out. This year the blood-curse has been removed from the yelling crowd scene in front of Pilate ("His blood be on us, and on our children"). In 1990, the council produced six tightly argued pages as to why it had to stay. That traditional accusation of collective guilt lives on in centuries of folk memory and links historically with aversion, contempt, aggression.

Here Jesus has Jewish friends within the Sanhedrin who closely argue (and lose) the case for his innocence and, at the least, for a fair and open trial; and who stand by Him on the Cross. Jesus himself was a Jew, like all the earliest Christians, a fact sometimes overlooked. The wonderful, painterly tableaux of Old Testament scenes which punctuate the narrative of Passion Week illustrate the matrix of Jewish faith and tradition from which the figure of Christ emerged.

For this production the directors set up a dialogue with the American-Jewish Council. Leading rabbis agree that the script "goes far in minimising anti-Judaism", and hope that "Passion 2000 will present a new and positive understanding of Jews and Jewishness".

There are five six-hour performances each week between May and October. Don't rush: tickets sold out two years ago.

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