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Dr Semmelweis at Harold Pinter Theatre | Review

If the Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865) (Mark Rylance) were around in this day and age, he’d probably find much to criticise about contemporary healthcare, though I wonder how he would have been received today: are workplaces more supportive than they were then? With what were considered, as this production would have it, maverick ideas at the time (posthumously, he was proven to be right by the likes of Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister), even with substantial empirical evidence, his theories and methods were thought to be too simple to be true. I think he would be denounced today just as much, if not more so, than he was then, given the way in which all sorts of false accusations and malicious rumours frequently make the rounds.

Mark Rylance (Ignaz Semmelweis) - credit Simon Annand
Mark Rylance (Ignaz Semmelweis) – credit Simon Annand.

Set in nineteenth-century Vienna and Budapest, the storyline is rather more complex than the rejection of proven methodology, and the show goes into Semmelweis’ personal life. His wife Maria (Amanda Wilkin) was, as she repeatedly points out, largely unaware of the history of his professional career – which, of course, is a narrative device to allow yet more details to be revealed to her, and thus the audience. Frankly, it’s a technique that’s overused to the point where the play very nearly comes across as contrived: what stops it from crossing the line that this is a real-life narrative.

The professional approach of Semmelweis’ superior, Johann Klein (Alan Williams), was to be tactful and diplomatic, traits that did not come naturally to Semmelweis, again as the show would have it, but more than that, he preferred to speak bluntly and plainly. There’s a hilarious (to me, anyway) scene involving a visit from a Baroness (Roseanna Anderson) that ends in pandemonium after the royal visitor refuses to adhere to Semmelweis’ clinical guidance. Unafraid to denounce his detractors, his putdowns, as presented here, make for gripping theatre. It’s rather different than watching Victor Meldrew having a rant – it’s speaking, or rather yelling, truth to power, clearly and articulately. It also just happens to be entertaining.

Rylance is highly convincing as the doctor whose mind, and therefore body, works overtime. Jude Owusu’s Jakob Kolletschka, a fellow medic, was the standout for me amongst the rest of the cast, providing moments of comic relief and then later proving pivotal to Semmelweis’ further discoveries even as they come too late to save himself from dying before his time.

Semmelweis is gifted tickets to the theatre, and so brings Anna Müller (Pauline McLynn), the senior nurse in the maternity clinic at the Vienna General Hospital, along. At first, the scene comes across as the production trying a bit too hard to insert contemporary references: there’s a debate amongst medics as to whether it’s acceptable to sing along, with a certain jukebox musical cited as an example. But the elaborate setup in which doctors are at a different kind of theatre than the ones in which they carry out their operations finally serves a purpose, showing Semmelweis’ total commitment to saving as many lives as possible, whatever the consequences.

There’s a lovely string quartet (Haim Choi and Coco Inman on violins, Kasia Zimińska on viola and Shizuku Tatsuno on cello). Occasionally their music feels like a lullaby, though the production as a whole is engaging enough not to risk ending up in the Land of Nod. Elsewhere, though, some haunting melodies suit Semmelweis’ internal suffering as he blames himself for medical failures and what were, as far as he was concerned, avoidable deaths.

The creative process for the show began, as the programme points out, before the theatres closed for public health reasons (if you catch my drift: there are certain words I’m trying to avoid), but there’s no getting around Semmelweis’ relentless drive to persuade fellow medics to commit to regular handwashing being something highly relatable. There are autopsies galore, without a drop of fake blood on stage.

The show does that thing, however, of flitting between the present and the past, the ‘present’ being Semmelweis’ older self, recollecting events (which are then dramatized) as he remembers them: but how reliable a narrator is he? That isn’t the only thing left for the audience to decide in this fascinating and intricately complex production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

“We are the doctors of the modern age. We are marching into battle.”

Mark Rylance returns to the West End as one of medicine’s greatest pioneers, maverick Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis – the man whose research could save many millions of mothers’ lives.

But what good is a discovery that is ignored?

In Vienna, a city of artistic and scientific revolution, thousands of women are still dying in childbirth each and every year. Only Dr Semmelweis can see the invisible killer at work, but to stop it, he must convince his colleagues to admit culpability and approve change.

Damned by an establishment that questions his methods, his motives and even his sanity, Semmelweis is haunted by the women he has failed to save. Can he finally convince the greatest doctors of 19th century Europe to accept his argument – and what will it cost him to make an almost impossible case?

Sonia Friedman Productions and the National Theatre present
the Bristol Old Vic Production of
By Stephen Brown with Mark Rylance
Based on an original idea by Mark Rylance

Directed by Tom Morris; Set and Costume Design by Ti Green; Lighting Design by Richard Howell; Choreography by Antonia Franceschi; Music by Adrian Sutton.

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