The Forbidden Zone

Barbican Theatre, London (*****)

© Stephen Cummisky, Kate Duchene (Nurse/Scientist)

© Stephen Cummisky, Kate Duchene (Nurse/Scientist)

A soldier stands in uniform having his photo taken.
A voice-over instructs: `Look well at this man. Look!
He waits for death –
He knows – ….’ WW1 poet and writer Mary Borden’s devastating poem makes the hairs rise on the back of the neck.

It is the beginning of possibly Katie Mitchell’s best – and that is saying something – experiments in multi-media `theatre’.

Admittedly, Mitchell’s vision requires budgets British practitioners can only dream of and her preoccupations haven’t always found favour here.

But The Forbidden Zone, taken from Borden’s book chronicling her experiences as a nurse behind the lines in WW1 – `the forbidden zone’ – shows Mitchell in total command of her mediums.

Mitchell has been experimenting for a long time with this bi-focal technique of stage and video-cam. In The Forbidden Zone, it pays off with a stunning display of technical and narrative bravura offering also a fascinating study in perspective.

What you see enacted in a series of chamber rooms is not what appears on screen. The space in between raises all sorts of questions about perception. We see the `fiction’ being made; it doesn’t stop us buying totally into the images on screen and the story – that of the suicides of two related women.

© Stephen Cummisky, Jenny Konig (Claire Haber)

© Stephen Cummisky, Jenny Konig (Claire Haber)

Clara Immerwahr was the wife of Jewish scientist, Fritz Haber who helped develop chemical weapons, first used in Ypres in 1915. Thirty four years later, their grand-daughter, Claire, committed suicide after learning of the use of the cyanide based Zyklon B agent in Auschwitz. One chemical development had led, terribly, to another.

Mitchell with Duncan Macmillan’s text (drawing on Borden but also Virginia Woolf, Hannah Arendt, Emma Goldman and Simone de Beauvoir) turns their suicides into a protest and a mark of female powerlessness.

© Stephen Cummisky, Jenny Konig (Claire Haber), Sebastian Pircher (American Soldier)

© Stephen Cummisky, Jenny Konig (Claire Haber), Sebastian Pircher (American Soldier)

With an army of scurrying video cam operators, Mitchell with designer Lizzie Clachan produces a series of absorbing scenes, particularly within the battleship grey railway carriage, which appears to rattle through the city even as we watch it tethered to the Barbican stage.

With a terrific cast drawn mostly from the Schaubühne plus Mitchell regular, Kate Duchêne as the nurse/scientist link between Clara and Claire, they don’t come better or more eloquently impressive than this.

Unequivocally, five stars!

The Forbidden Zone ran at the Barbican Theatre, May 26-29; World premiere at Salzburg Festival, July 30, 2014


Clara Immerwahr: Ruth Marie Kröger
Fritz Haber: Felix Römer
Claire Haber: Jenny König
Scientist: Andreas Schröders
Soldier: Giorgio Spiegelfeld
Nurse/Scientist: Kate Duchêne
American Soldier: Sebastian Pircher

Andreas Hartmann, Stefan Kesslssoglou and Sebastian Pircher

Other camera takes, sounds and voices by members of the Ensemble (off stage)

Director: Katie Mitchell
Video direction: 59 Productions
Set design: Lizzie Clachan
Costume Design: Sussie Juhlin-Wallén
Video design: Finn Ross
Lighting design: Jack Knowles
Sound design: Gareth Fry, Melanie Wilson
Translator: Vera Neurath
Dramaturgy: Nils Haarmann, David Tushingham
Production Manager: John Higgins
Assistant Directors: Philipp Arnold, Lily McLeish, Sonja Szillinksky

Performed in English and German with English surtitles

Part of 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary

Presented by the Barbican and 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Arts Commissions, supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Review first published in Reviewsgate,

May 2016