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We meet Dr Semmelweis in the 1860s, some years after his return to Pest, Hungary, following the fallout that saw him exiled from Vienna Central Hospital. A surprise visit from his former prodigy leaves the troubled doctor, still haunted by visions of avoidable deaths, torn over whether to return to Vienna and restate his revolutionary discovery or stay put with his pregnant partner Maria (Amanda Wilkin, very good).
Amanda Wilkin (Maria Semmelweis), Mark Rylance (Ignaz Semmelweis). Photo: Simon Annand
Old wounds reopen, Semmelweis’s mental state deteriorates, and in a particularly cruel twist of fate, he ends up incarcerated in a psychiatric institution where he eventually dies from the very cause for which he fought to educate the medical system.
It’s a true story, of course, and one Rylance has wanted to bring to the stage for over 10 years. The script, co-written with Stephen Brown, is compelling and persuasive with several stand-out lines (‘no quantity of chlorine can adjust the muddy thinking from an entrenched mind’).
The bulk of the play is centred around flashbacks to Semmelweis’s stint at the hospital, which in director Tom Morris’s production sees conversations at patients’ bedsides spliced with autopsies carried out imaginatively with invisible knives – a reminder of how frequently women died. Designer Ti Green’s largely darkened stage rotates during these sequences, with beds and operating tables coming in and out of focus like a macabre carousel.
Dance Ensemble of Dr Semmelweis. Photo: Simon Annand
It’s an abstract portrayal of the story and one made beautiful by a chorus of ballet dancers representing the dead women. At regular intervals, we see them spin, sway and convulse to Adrian Sutton sombre score, performed by an all-female string quartet, who roam the stage and occasionally the auditorium. Morris’s abuse of traditional stage boundaries is a glorious rebellion that also sees Rylance swing from the audience boxes onto the stage in one early betrayal of his character’s volatility.
That women were not treated as equals to men is a theme returned to again and again. Fewer women died on the maternity wing than on the doctor’s wing, largely because the midwives weren’t allowed into the hospital’s ‘dead house’ (morgue), and this patronising barricade ironically meant the midwives were able to provide a safer service.
Covid brought with it a vivid reminder of the importance of washing our hands, but by then Rylance and Morris had already begun working on a play that would celebrate and right the reputation of Dr Semmelweis. This thoughtful show is justice served.
|Mark Rylance in Dr Semmelweis, Harold Pinter Theatre review
|Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton Street, London, SW1Y 4DN | MAP
|Piccadilly Circus (underground)
29 Jun 23 – 07 Oct 23, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Click here for more information and to book