Passion for Bavarian passion play subsides

The show features Jesus Christ as its main protagonist and, with a run that has lasted 376 years, it is the envy of every theatre in the world. Bavaria's Oberammergau passion play usually attracts at least half a million spectators each year it is performed; but not this year.

Passion for the passion play is on the wane as Oberammergau, the German Alpine village that has been hosting and providing most of the cast for the hallowed spectacle since 1634, prepares to launch this year's premiere today. The global financial crisis, flight-disrupting volcanic ash and a child abuse scandal rocking the German and other parts of the Catholic Church have combined to dampen audience enthusiasm for the passion play.

Seventy per cent of visitors to Oberammergau come from outside Germany, with British and American tourists making up the majority. This year, 50,000 tickets for the passion play originally sold in the US have already been returned, and the threat of further cancellations looms.

Owners of bed-and-breakfast hotels and pensions in Oberammergau have seen bookings down by half compared with 2000, the last time the passion play was performed in its 10-yearly cycle.

Oberammergau, population 5,000, began staging a theatrical version of the crucifixion in the early 17th century. Villagers vowed to perform the play every decade, believing they would be spared the bubonic plague sweeping Europe at the time. Nearly half the residents are in this year's five-hour production, which is performed five times a week until the beginning of October.

The play has been a vital source of income for the village, bringing in some €25m (£21m). In the 19th century, the British traveller Sir Richard Burton remarked after seeing the play: "The pious villagers have a monopoly on the most profitable amateur theatre spectacle known to the civilised world."

Michael Altgassen, a spokesman for Oberammergau's hoteliers, says that something should be done to attract younger and, above all, more German-speaking audiences. "Go over to neighbouring Tirol in Austria and nobody has ever heard of the passion play," he insists.

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