Clara Immerwahr was married to the German scientist principally responsible for the development of poison gas in the first world war – a line of research that indirectly led to the use of Zyklon B in Nazi gas chambers. Clara committed suicide in 1915 when she realised her husband’s work was leading to the violent destruction of life, instead of improving it.
This fragment of history provides the starting point for Katie Mitchell’s stunning new multimedia piece, commissioned by the Salzburg Festival as part of its programme marking the centenary of the 1914-18 conflict. The destructive power of war and the quest for an enduring peace were motivating forces behind the festival’s founding in 1920, and it is a sign of its internationalism – and of Mitchell’s growing reputation in German-speaking Europe – that it should turn to her to produce this 75-minute piece of performance art. It is based as much on feminist anti-war texts arranged by British writer Duncan Macmillan as on Mitchell’s distinctive techniques, which use live film of what is being enacted on stage to enlarge the performance and simultaneously distance it.
The substance of The Forbidden Zone is an interweaving of Immerwahr’s story with that of her granddaughter’s similarly suicidal protest against the development of destructive chemical agents in a Chicago laboratory in 1949. The idea that men have always been the sole protagonists in war while women stand helpless at the sidelines is not new. But by profiling two heroic-tragic acts of protest against women’s powerlessness, Mitchell’s immaculately constructed polemic speaks powerfully about the futility of war to a new generation – look at Syria, look at Ukraine – that doesn’t seem to have learnt the lessons of the past.
What is surprising about the militant texts Macmillan has assembled – by Mary Borden, Emma Goldman, Virginia Woolf and others – is that they all emanate from a period before the feminist movement made its presence widely felt. Mitchell’s trick is to marry them seamlessly to her two interlocked narratives, which leave the audience with an overwhelming sense of numbness.
In short, the London-based auteur-director has responded to the inglorious past with an original, hard-hitting piece of political theatre that speaks to the future as much as the present. Co-produced by Berlin’s Schaubühne, it demands an immediate showing in the English-speaking world.