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Katie Mitchell talks to David Tushingham about “The Forbidden Zone”

29 JUL 2014

published in: Drama

Katie Mitchell (Photo: Salzburger Festspiele / Stephen Cummiskey)
What was your initial reaction when you were asked to create a piece of theatre to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1914-18 war?
I was really honoured. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. And I thought it was important to get it right. I was very keen to focus particularly on female experience and to commemorate women’s contributions in that war.

The title The Forbidden Zone already puts forward idea of exclusion, doesn’t it? Do you feel that this was a conflict from which women were excluded?
Women’s political and economic role in society at the time meant that it was inevitable that they wouldn’t take particularly leading roles in this war. Women weren’t granted the vote until after the war. Being disenfranchised and powerless inevitably affected the function that they had during the war.

In some ways I can see parallels between what the character of Claire does in the show and what you’ve been doing, reflecting on this apocalyptic event of the First World War from a later time and thinking about what women then might have been able to do to prevent it or to protest against it.
Yes, there are parallels between us as you suggest – both wanting to get some objective distance on the events of the First World War. However there are differences too.  I’m obviously at a greater distance from the events. Claire had family members (like her grandfather, Fritz Haber) who were directly involved with the First World War and relatives who were killed in the Second World War.  We chose Claire Haber as one of our main characters because we wanted to explore not only the question of objective distance but also the way in which the two wars related to each other.

Have you done any investigation into what members of your family were doing at that time?
The Second World War is the war that featured most in our discussed family history and in particular my grandfather on my dad's side, John Mitchell.  He fought in Africa and clearly returned a very changed man and ended up trying to kill himself after he and my grandmother's separated. I remember him as a very distant and difficult man and unconsciously associated his personality with his war time experiences.  His anger and bitterness definitely cast a shadow across the male line of our family. John was too young to take part in the First World War. I only recently caught up with the story of my grandfather on my mother's side, Jack Powell.  He joined up in 1914 when he was 16. He lied to join. His father offered to get him in as a captain but he wanted to join the rank and file and work his way up to being a captain. He finally achieved this. My mother said that he never talked about the war: never, never, never.  He fought from 1914 until 1918 and left when he was 20. He experienced mustard gas attacks and as a result his lungs were weak after the war and he finally died of lung cancer. Like my grandfather on my father's side he was a difficult man but not in his rages - more in his lack of warmth and he was a very distant figure. My abiding memory of him is his love of hours of solitary fishing. What was so interesting with The Forbidden Zone was to track the shadow cast throughout an entire family, several generations, by the First World War.  The damage that it wreaked.  I know that our parents’ generation were affected by the First World War because they were parented by people who came back from it. I have the feeling that a lot of our society was shaped by the buried trauma that these men carried back with them. The way they behaved to cope with what had happened to them shaped them as fathers and shaped their sons as adults.

In The Forbidden Zone, how much of the story is fact and how much is invention?
40% fact and 60% invention. The facts are the spine of the show. Clara Immerwahr and Fritz Haber existed. And their granddaughter Claire Haber existed and the laboratory which she worked in in Chicago. But there is also a fictional character who we have called Kate and she is working alongside Claire Haber in the laboratory in Chicago. She is in her early fifties working with Claire Haber on creating antidotes to the chemical weapon phosgene.  Her work on chemical weapons was born from her experiences as a nurse in the First World War. She is based on our study of nurses who were at the front, particularly the amazing American heiress Mary Borden who ran a field hospital in France. So part of the story has these two women working together in a laboratory in 1949, one who is the granddaughter of Fritz Haber, the man who invented chemical weapons, and who is no doubt trying to heal the wound in her family history by working on antidotes to other chemical weapons, and she is working alongside a nurse who was at Ypres where Fritz Haber released his first chlorine gas canisters in 1915 killing 2000 men. She loved one of the men who was killed and hasn’t really recovered from his death. These two women are working together, not really aware of their respective histories.

That’s a very powerful narrative, isn’t it?
We were trying to find a real life story that caught the powerlessness of women and their power simultaneously. This narrative definitely addresses that and it is Greek in its dimensions: it is about an awful family trauma that passes itself down from generation to generation and finally can really only be stopped by more self-harm. The way in which war runs wild through a family - like one of those forest fires - through generations is just terrifying.  At the heart of the narrative is the event of Clara Immerwahr shooting herself in her garden in Berlin to protest at her husband’s work on chemical weapons. It’s amazing to look at the newspaper clippings from the time which report the shooting. One of them says: we don’t know really why this poor young woman died in this way. How terrifying is that? That people at the time did not understand the root of her suicide and therefore took away the power of that action, that protest?  Of course you can see that there were other contributory factors to her suicide in her private life but the timing and context (after her husband’s return from Ypres and just before his next military outing to the eastern front to release more chlorine gas) are incontrovertible.

Poison gas was only one of a number of different new weapons which were invented during the First World War. It was a time of real accelerated development in terms of inflicting damage on other people.
Yes, and it must be said at this point that the French were the first to develop chemical weapons and release them on the field in the First World War. The Germans were a very close second at Ypres and of course as soon as the British found out, they moved at high speed to get their own chemical weapons developed and released. Gas was very unstable as a weapon, relying on the wind for its effectiveness. Often the very troops who released it would end up being smothered by it because of a change of direction of the wind. The descriptions of it are awful: this total mess, pandemonium on the field and the way in which nature was affected – dead birds, horses, trees stripped of their leaves and so on. I think the numbers of people killed by chemical weapons during the First World War were quite small. Its most efficient use as I understood it was as a way of spreading fear. The show is also trying to document the new kinds of psychological and emotional wounds which people encountered as a result of the new weapons which science helped to create.

The show, as you call it, combines the work of a number of different writers and - rather like the blend of real life and invented characters – again it combines extant writing by a series of leading 20th century feminist authors and new writing by Duncan Macmillan, who has not only contributed original texts, he’s also given the whole thing a structure and a form.
The process of writing was a complex one and a lot of it took place during the rehearsals in response to the work with the actors on the characters. We entered rehearsals with a narrative strand for each of our three key female characters, Clara, Kate and Claire, and as we rehearsed we worked on the way in which those three narratives should be woven together. Once the order of the scenes was finalised Duncan would start writing the content. Both of us were also very keen to use women’s writing from the historical periods covered by the story and early on we made the decision that this authentic literature from the First World War and beyond would be used as voiceovers to the action. One of the main writers we used is Mary Borden. Her poems are some of the most powerful writing from the front and are as devastating and brilliant as the more well- known work of people like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. We also took the title, The Forbidden Zone, from Mary Borden’s writings.

The major characters in The Forbidden Zone are scientists. You recently made a performance, 10 Billion, with a scientist, Stephen Emmott, whose prognosis for the future of the planet I have to say was one of the bleakest experiences I’ve ever had in a theatre – not because of the nature of the show but just because of what he was saying. How did your work with him inform your view of the scientists in this piece, the moral choices they have and any ability they might have to influence events?
I think my time with Stephen exposed me to the absolute ambition that scientists have that at times doesn’t really function inside a moral context.  Scientists who deal with climate change have to separate their scientific thinking and work from themselves: otherwise they’d probably kill themselves because the situation is clearly pretty bad. I saw this tension between the science and the personal life of the scientist and it probably helped me understand how Fritz Haber could separate his science from his personal life, his scientific integrity from his national fervour and so on. He could compartmentalize all of these things and justify the use of science to kill people. He could justify mass murder to himself using arguments like this: the weapons will help to win the war more quickly and thereby reduce the number of casualties long term. Of course Fritz Haber is a very complicated figure and not easy to present. He was not only am ambitious and enormously brilliant scientist, he was also was an assimilated Jew, really wanting to belong, to be deep in the heart of the German establishment, as well as someone not from one of the wealthiest class backgrounds. Many psychological strands weave together to create this man who decides to put his energies into the development of weapons of mass destruction. It’s also important to remember that he invented fertiliser and even today 24 % of all people in the world owe their lives to this invention.

Do you think we should expect scientists to be able to decide whether to use their inventions or not – or whether responsibility for that has to lie somewhere else?
If the scientific inventions are about developing weapons of mass destruction then the decision about whether to put the invention into production (and use) or not has to be made by a head of state. And of course this was the case in the First World War where the use of chemical weapons was licensed by the governments of all the countries who used them. I do believe that when the scientist Clara Immerwahr held the gun to her heart and pulled the trigger in Berlin 1915 that she sensed the scale of what was being unleashed on the world – and that when her granddaughter, Claire Haber, took her own life in a public toilet in Chicago 34 years later that she was doing so because she could no longer live with consequences of what had been unleashed.

The Interview was conducted by David Tushingham.