Gareth Fry, Melanie Wilson
Ruth Marie Kröger
Barbican Centre, May 2016
***** Financial Times
For nearly a decade 59 Productions has been working with director Katie Mitchell on a theatrical technique called "Live Cinema", in which a seamless, cinematic-quality film is shot in real-time on stage in front of a theatre audience.
With video direction by 59's Leo Warner, the piece includes elaborate film and stage sets (designed by Lizzie Clachan), which include several detailed period rooms, as well as a moving 1940's Chicago subway train that is brought to life through elaborate sound, lighting and in-camera effects.
Forbidden Zone - which premiered at the Salzburg Festival in July 2014 - is arguably the most ambitious and complex of these pieces to date. With multiple narratives crossing two time zones, the piece tells the story of Fritz Haber, the inventor of the very first chemical weapons during the First World War, and the effect that it had on his family over three generations.
The production will play at The Barbican Theatre from May 26th - May 29th.
(Photographs by Stephen Cummiskey)
"Well, this is Katie Mitchell at her very best. In this stunning, sombre piece of theatre, the director works with her regular collaborators 59 Productions, interlacing theatre and live video to tell the neglected story of Clara Immerwahr and her granddaughter: two unsung casualties of chemical warfare....t is desolate and brilliantly executed. A life-sized train carriage dominates the stage, with other locations — a garden, a laboratory, a public toilet — all just visible in the recesses behind. As the cast act out the scenes we peer into the train and the various rooms, piecing together their stories, while above the stage their actions are relayed live on a screen, looking every bit like a period film. The double perspective — the fact that we can see camera operators running about and observe how tricks are done even as we watch the results — doesn’t detract from the intensity: if anything, it increases it. There’s a calmness and solicitude about it, and a forensic quality that seems to honour the women."
"Time is fluid and different eras co-exist in this haunting piece created for the Schaubühne theatre in Berlin by Katie Mitchell, Duncan Macmillan and the video artist Leo Warner....Using the techniques Mitchell pioneered in Waves, live action is displayed in projected closeups, delivered by a brilliant band of camera operators who swarm across the stage. As with great puppetry, their presence doesn’t distract but heightens both interest and emotion.
From a tremble in twisting fingers to a twitch in the corner of a mouth, this 80-minute show offers a multitude of alternative perspectives. Personal stories and public events collide and there is a constant tension between internal and external realities. History is not one single unfolding narrative but a series of glimpsed or overheard moments, the consequences of which are only gradually revealed."
"It finds new ways of reminding us of the horrors and hangovers of war by keeping its focus tight, revolving its story around two generations of one family. In 1915 the German-Jewish scientist Fritz Haber pioneered the use of chlorine gas as a chemical weapon. We see him arguing over the morality of this with his wife, Clara Immerwahr, who would take her own life in protest. Elsewhere on the set the unabashedly visible cameramen follow a French soldier in a field hospital at Ypres. Yes, the evening will not end well for him. All this gets projected on to a big screen above the set by the video directors, 59 Productions....As the first-rate cast of seven perform in the separate rooms — and full-size railway carriages — of Lizzie Clachan’s incredibly detailed set, we’re both in on the artifice and under its spell. The effect is both forensic and impassioned, specific and dreamlike, theatre and film. Mitchell’s production is an absorbing work of awful beauty."
"Towards the end, as the elements of the narrative slot together, it takes on the pace of a thriller. The production speaks 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. It’s a machine, but it’s an exquisite machine."
"Mitchell uses onstage cameras to weave together the different strands of The Forbidden Zone, which features poetic text written by Virginia Woolf, Mary Borden, Simone de Beauvoir and others. Essentially we watch the action play out on a huge screen at the top of the stage, while the scenes are shot live from the set below it. Cameramen scurry around quickly and quietly as they zoom in on the actors...The Forbidden Zone is a remarkable achievement of timing and cues: a balancing act performed by not just actors but by cameramen too. And it's intriguing just for that. But the piece is also a quietly overwhelming look at the heavy destruction of conflict, and the ease with which humans shrug off their humanity."
"One of the best things the theatre can do is embody the stories of forgotten lives. In The Forbidden Zone, director Katie Mitchell and playwright Duncan Macmillan achieve this mesmerisingly, desolatingly. Their subjects are women at war. Their worlds are fragmented and unstable. Macmillan’s script has no one strong voice: it is a collage of different texts. Mitchell’s production has no single driving line or mode. It swims between the virtual and the actual, between video and flesh...Working with the video designer Leo Warner, Mitchell’s work is instantly recognisable. Here is treacly slowness, murky lighting, unwavering intensity. These qualities can silt up a play. Not here. They are at one with her subject and only illuminate."