Home Musical play Dr. Semmelweis Review – Mark Rylance’s Fascinating Story of the Pioneer of Medical Hygiene | Theater

Dr. Semmelweis Review – Mark Rylance’s Fascinating Story of the Pioneer of Medical Hygiene | Theater


A A few months before bringing “Rooster” Byron’s band of outsiders back to the stage in a revival of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, Mark Rylance brings to life a very different anti-establishment figure: Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, a pioneer too far ahead on his. time.

Based on an original idea by Rylance and written with Stephen Brown, this play explores the life of the Hungarian physician who worked in Vienna’s maternity wards in the 19th century. Semmelweis’ groundbreaking practices in antiseptic procedure have saved thousands of lives – especially those of poor mothers – and could have saved more had his findings been recognized by the medical community. But he was doubted and disbelieved, and died in an asylum without due recognition and, in a final twist of bad luck, from sepsis, which he had battled to save his patients.

Her story becomes a tragedy of almost Shakespearian proportions in the hands of Rylance, who appears plaintive, hollow-eyed, by turns timid and absolute in his unyielding sense of entitlement. But the cast around him keeps pace, from Thalissa Teixeira as his wife Maria to Semmelweis’ medical allies Jackie Clune, Sandy Grierson, Felix Hayes and Enyi Okoronkwo among others, each as good as the next.

Under the direction of Tom Morris, the production is almost as much a dance as a play, with expressionist movement (choreography by Antonia Franceschi) and music (by Adrian Sutton) that draw us into the spirit of Semmelweis , from his outbursts to his final outcome. A chorus of ghostly dancers – the women he couldn’t save – stage the anguish as the violins and cello mourn. These elements together run the risk of an overexcited atmosphere but the production deviates from it. Instead, there’s intensity, and the drama feels pulled in its pain.

“A ghostly chorus of women he couldn’t save.” Photography: Geraint Lewis

It paints a picture of a thwarted life but also, more obliquely, explores why some people are hailed as pioneers, their theories welcomed and their genius immortalized, while others are seen as outsiders. Semmelweis made breakthroughs long before the work of Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur on germ theory. But in his demanding nature, his determined zeal to save lives and his gruff ways, he reveals that medical science is governed – of course – by its own personality politics when it comes to overturning old paradigms for new new.

Two time frames are navigated with magnificent fluidity on the set of Ti Green (simple but dramatic, an oculus above, a revolution below and an almost disturbing darkness from which the characters emerge). In these shifts of time, we get a strong sense of Semmelweis’ inner fracture: he seems involuntarily drawn into the past, playing out on stage, with his present world watching him simultaneously. Richard Howell’s lighting works within this duality – warm and sepia-tinged in the domestic present but a strongly lit past that fills with shadows in the background.

Death is ever-present in the maternity ward where Semmelweis works, and every loss has an emotional impact, even when it happens in passing. In the meantime, there is a visceral side to the autopsy and childbirth scenes, which are danced or mimed gestures.

Although it is its own specific story, and more importantly a period piece, there is relevance to the themes of new science and distrust that resonate in our Covid era. The piece was conceived before the pandemic, but Semmelweis’ calls for fellow doctors to “wash their hands” feel, eerily, that the past is also haunting our present.