Oberammergau diary: Marys and Christs contemplate their fate after mill ennial drama

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IN THE rococo splendour of Pilate's House, I spy Jesus Christ conducting a wedding ceremony. The captain of the Roman legion trundles past in the mayor's car, spraying tourists and apostles with slush. Upon the snowy peaks rising above the clouds, the other Jesus watches over us. He is the head of the mountain-rescue service in real life, if there is such a thing in this alpine Beverly Hills.

Since 1633, when the people of Oberammergau vowed to stage, every 10 years, the Passion play about the life and death of Jesus if God spared them from the plague, the German village has grown into a biblical theme park. Almost all the 5,000 inhabitants have some role in the drama, enacted through spring and summer in front of half a million visitors and an immense global television audience. The baker, the wood-carver and the ski instructor - all are international celebrities.

For the main players, stardom can exact a heavy price. Jesus the registrar - an uncommonly handsome man - has trouble fighting off women. Pilates never regain their popularity, Marys are prone to nervous breakdowns, and the villagers would rather not talk about the tragic fate that befell Judas. "You cannot help being transformed by the role," said a local. All previous Christs have had to go ex-directory because of constant pestering on the telephone by their not-so-meek fans, especially devotees in Britain.

THE famous open-air theatre with its expansive stage is being made ready for the next cycle in 2000. The orchestra is having problems, though. Every member must come from Oberammergau, but the past decade has seen a lean harvest of oboists and bassoonists. The talent-spotters who sift through residents aged three and over have somehow overlooked these two instruments. Mercifully, there is a good supply of angelic voices for the choir. Tradition dictates that on Ash Wednesday a year from now, male members of the cast must begin to grow their hair and beard. Oberammergau will mutate into a hippy commune, although peace and love might be in short supply. Families will be pitted against one another in the scramble for the starring roles. There are two players for every big act, taking turns through the season of 100 performances.

As the time of selection approaches, centuries-old feuds are rekindled and evil tongues wag. The whispering campaign has already begun. "Both Johns were awful the last time," says an ambitious mother. "One couldn't act, and the other was as ugly as the Black Death."

THE second coming is imminent. Everyone seems certain that the hunky registrar will still have his cross to bear into the next millenium, while one of the two Mary Magdalenes is a hot tip for promotion to Mary. But sheer talent is no guarantee of success. Casting is in the power of the village council, and to explain how someone becomes a Joseph and not Judas, we must make a detour into the jungle of local politics.

Councillors spend all their time discussing the minutiae of the Passion play, and are split neatly among fundamentalist-modernist lines. Supporters of the young modernist director, Christian Stuckl, command seven seats. Mr Stuckl, who now does this sort of thing for a living in Munich after his acclaimed production of the play in 1990, had to sue for a new contract. The villagers are with him, but the biggest block of councillors are in the thrall of the arch-conservatives. Their faction, led by Dr Zwink, a dentist and former Christ, have eight seats. In Oberammergau the reactionary Christian Social Union (CSU) hold the middle ground with six seats.

The director must bargain for every role. "I'll give you a Caiphas and a Paul for a Mary," is the sort of conversation that will be filling the council chamber in the coming months. The winners will be chalked up on a blackboard in front of the village hall in a year's time.

MODERNITY is the catchword of the new production - Dr Zwink's friends permitting. Because of an European Union ruling, long-term Muslim and Protestant residents must be included for the first time. The text of the six-hour play has been reworked and brought up to date, but do not look for words such as "cool" in the script. The director is restricted to the vocabulary of the Bible. He wants to make Jesus a stronger character than before. "All Christ does after lunch in the original script is say goodbye to everybody," Mr Stuckl complains. "The new Jesus sounds like an instructor of religious education," Dr Zwink retorts.

The new version will have three crowd scenes - a vast tableau of 1,000 actors under the towering cliffs - instead of two at present. Mr Stuckl promises to fill a gaping dramatic hole which opened up after lingering anti-Semitic slurs were banished in 1970. In the current 19th-century Passion play, Christ is betrayed by the - Jewish - money-changers of the temple. When this passage was excised, the audience could no longer work out who shopped Jesus and why. According to the new twist ... No, that would be telling. All will be revealed in May 2000. As a millennial experience, it should beat the hell out of a certain Dome.