'The Forbidden Zone' review or 'Did I just see sparks fly?'

The Forbidden Zone, Duncan Macmillan/Schaubühne
Barbican Theatre, 27th May 2016

I went to see ‘The Forbidden Zone’ on Friday night and a part of me is still sat inside the Barbican theatre, my body frozen and my jaw dropped. Holy. Moly.

This collaboration between Katie Mitchell, the Schaubühne Berlin ensemble and Duncan Macmillan is just over an hour long but is so exquisitely packed that you'll feel whole worlds have been revealed to you; theses of complex thought unraveled, feminist waves unleashed, hearts opened and eye balls dazzled.

The show dances across two time zones and two continents, both in the grip of war. On one side of the stage is 1940s America on the verge of the Cold War. On the other side of the stage we have Germany, already in the throes of World War One. Both sides are connected by real-life German scientist Fritz Haber, whose research led to the weaponisation of chlorine gas and the beginning of chemical warfare.

Mitchell and Macmillan follow two women who have both personal and professional connections with Haber and his work. On one side we watch Haber's wife, Clara Immerwahr, who became profoundly disturbed by her husband's deadly research. On the other side we are shown Clara's granddaughter Claire who, decades later, would attempt to find an antidote to Haber's lethal gas. The sides dance with each other - melt and fuse and bleed into each other – across Lizzie Clachlan's extraordinary set. Film is dominant in this production: a giant screen hangs about the stage and every scene is filmed live and projected above the glowing, fractured dollhouse set. All those recorded images might have had a distancing effect but in fact only make ‘The Forbidden Zone’ feel closer, deeper and painfully intimate.  

The set is a maze of tiny cut out rooms, which have been sliced up and left open at the front. All these cramped little spaces look rather pathetic to the naked eye but, when filtered through a grainy lens and projected above the stage - and augmented with brilliantly textured soundscapes and lighting - suddenly burst with life and depth and history. An obsession with scale is written into the DNA of Mitchell’s production and Macmillan’s writing: both writer and director use small details, minutely observed moments and neglected characters to explore moments of huge historical import, whose impact will continue to create ripples - sometimes quite literally across the screen – over decades to come.

It’s so interesting to see the minute and obscure details on set – the snaking foliage that climbs up a garden wall, the dirt that clogs a window, the flickering reflection in a pool of water or a tiny sign marked DANGER at the back of a chemical cupboard – take on such powerful significance when examined through a camera lens and projected on screen. Tiny slithers of scenes, stolen gasps and snatched little moments explode into life and – radiant and magnified - pulse, chirp, gleam and drip with meaning. It is quite moving, humbling even, to watch such a dramatic transformation take place. This magnifying effect also brilliantly suggests the exponential impact of science and the way in which small details - minutes, hours and days of careful and focused research – can have such massive consequences, both beautiful and ghastly.

A life-size train carriage – yep, a huge dark clunky and rectangular train carriage – dominates the front of the stage. Young scientist Claire, who says so little throughout the play but is clearly struggling to process so much (particularly the gruesome impact of her grandfather's work), spends a lot of time on this train, sitting and staring and thinking (her  huge and unblinking eyes contain the whole world of the play and beyond). As soon as Claire steps inside the train, the carriage interior is projected onto the screen and the transformation of that box – from something distant and clunky and vague to something close and textured and real – takes the breath away.

When the train begins to move, the lights of the tunnel flash through the carriage and out into the audience. Viewed in ‘real-life’ (rather than via the detailed projection above), all those sparks in the darkness make the carriage look a little like a lab, where late late-night work is being carried out. It is one hell of a double/triple image, which allows the show to fold infinitely in on itself. Look at how our eyes deceive us, says this moment. Look at how complicated (how beautiful and ugly) life really is, when examined up close.  And look at how different the progress of that train – and all the progress that this sparking train represents – might look when viewed through a lens and from above.  

There are endless moments like this that hum with a million brilliantly embedded ideas. ‘Forbidden Zone’ has been so meticulously researched and so beautifully constructed – both dramaturgically and visually – that ideas and emotions tumble out of every tiny exposed crack, probing and delighting us.   

The two principle actresses – Jenny König as young scientist Claire and Ruth Marie Kröger as Haber's wife Clara – say very little but their eyes lie at the heart of this production. Over and again, we watch their eyes in close up and feel deep sadness and anger radiate from them. All that heat and fury generated by the men in the labs and out on the battlefield has seeped inside these two women and now escapes through their eyes. That same desperate heat – the heat and passion and rage and sorrow that is given no outlet – also boils beneath the feminist texts that Macmillan has woven into this piece. Virginia Woolf speaks of patriotism and the word bursts with an awful and ugly energy. Mary Borden's journal entries, from her time spent as a nurse in a field hospital, crackle with rage, frustration and fear: 'Look at this man! Look at death!”, screams the voiceover, as we watch poisonous foam spew from a dying soldier's mouth.

Clara and Claire are at the heart of this story yet always on the edges of Mitchell's production. Many of Claire's scenes in the lab take place behind the train carriage; her work is not for us to see. In one incredible scene, Claire sits in the train carriage as an American solider hovers threateningly from afar. Claire attempts to walk to the end of the carriage – although we, from a superior perspective, can see that this is not possible since the carriage drops off at the end. The solider moves forward and attacks Claire and the camera crew – all male? - continue to film. From our perspective, out in the ‘real world’, the camera men filming inside the carriage look like normal men, sitting in the train. We watch them sit, observe and do nothing. In a final image, the train – which has taken Claire to the end of her journey – smashes up against another carriage. Look at where this train has taken Claire. Look at where this progress has ended.


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