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The Forbidden Zone review at the Barbican Theatre, London – ‘an exquisite machine’

Jenny Konig in The Forbidden Zone at the Barbican Theatre. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

A woman sits on a train, lights flickering past, time flickering past. We zoom in on her eyes, her hands, the purse she carries, the past she carries.

The Forbidden Zone sees Katie Mitchell take the ‘living cinema’ techniques she’s been honing over the years to new heights. On a technical level it borders on the extraordinary. The stage is split in two. The top half is entirely filled by a projection screen while the bottom section is divided into a series of intricately constructed rooms: a Chicago laboratory, a field hospital during the First World War, a public lavatory. In front of these is a life-size train carriage, capable of sliding backwards and forwards as well as splitting in two, like an aperture.

The use of cameras allow the audience to see into these individual rooms, each one richly detailed by Mitchell’s regular collaborator, Lizzie Clachan. The camera operators play almost as large a part in the production as the performers, allowing for switches in perspective, for cuts between close up and long shot. While the production has a metronome quality, their movements are swift and nimble – Melanie Wilson’s languid soundscape is frequently punctuated by the whip-crack of cables as they move around the stage. It’s like glimpsing a swan’s legs kicking beneath the surface of a lake.

The narrative, like the stage, is also divided into two. The Forbidden Zone is inspired by the story of Clara Immerwahr, a German woman married to a chemist researching the effects of poison gas. Alarmed by his work and what it might mean for the world, she extinguished her own life, firing a bullet into her heart. Her granddaughter, Claire, a scientist in a Chicago laboratory in 1949 where toxins were also being developed, would also commit suicide. History repeating itself. Mitchell paints their deaths as acts of protest, the only response to the destruction they could do nothing to halt.

Duncan Macmillan’s text is spliced with the words of Mary Borden, Emma Goldman and Virginia Woolf, and the contrast between what we hear and see, between what is voiced and what is not, is potent. The two timelines are united by Kate Duchene, playing a colleague of Claire’s who worked as a nurse during the First World War and saw the appalling damage done to men on the battlefield by substances created by other men in laboratories. She brings necessary tenderness to the production.

This Schaubuhne Berlin production, which premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2014, arrives in London the week after Mitchell’s Ophelias Zimmer. They share common themes and there’s a clear echo of Ophelia in Immerwahr’s death. There’s something unsettling, however, in the manner in which both women’s deaths are used to generate dramatic tension, in taking an act so desperate and complicated as the impulse to end one’s own life and making it seem clear-cut and almost beautiful.

The production speaks both the languages of cinema and of theatre and, as such, requires different modes of viewing. But it’s entirely possible to be swept up in the story while also marvelling at the complexity, the audacity, of what it’s doing technically. Towards the end, as the elements of the narrative slot together, it takes on the pace and rhythms of a thriller. It’s a stunning production in more ways than one, a machine, but an exquisite machine.

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Technically audacious Katie Mitchell production about women in times of war