The play may have been conceived in 2016, but it was almost a case of history repeating itself before Dr Semmelweis by Stephen Brown with Mark Rylance eventually made it to the stage. The production premiered in Bristol last year, and has now transferred to The Harold Pinter Theatre under the direction of Tom Morris.
For Mark Rylance, familiar with playing the outsider, this feels very much like a passion project, something that can be observed in the torment etched on the actor’s face as he portrays the real life Dr Ignaz Semmelweis, who practiced in the mid-19th Century.
In these days, before the work of Lister and Pasteur, death rates in hospitals were alarmingly high as the medical profession had not yet established the importance of hygiene. Bed sheets were left unchanged between patients, and in this Vienna teaching hospital, doctors would work on corpses in the ‘death house’ and go straight to treating open wounds, all without washing their hands.
It seems inconceivable now, especially following the events of recent years, but in those days the hospital staff simply assumed that if something looked clean, then it was. Semmelweis, along with a small group of colleagues, discovered and proved that hand washing cut the mortality rate, but the establishment did not believe it.
What makes Dr Semmelweis so compelling is the unravelling of the ‘mystery’; the way in which Semmelweis and his supporters dissect the evidence that seems so obvious to us is brilliantly done, a cross between the premises of Columbo and House M.D. in a period piece. The story flicks between two timelines; Semmelweis relaying to his wife the opposition he faced in the past, with the historical scenes re-enacted for our benefit.
But there’s more that draws the audience in, this is a multi-disciplinary piece. A String Quartet play Adrian Sutton’s emotive music, wailing and weeping for the many lives lost – mainly of women and babies. Accompanying all of this are a group of ballet dancers, choreographed by Antonia Franceschi, who writhe in the agonies brought about by the unsanitary practices.
Unsurprisingly, Rylance is mesmerising as the determined, albeit capricious, Ignaz Semmelweis. As barrier after barrier is placed in the doctor’s way, Rylance captivates with a dynamic performance. The remainder of the cast keep up, Pauline McLynn is wonderful as the nurse Anna Müller, as is Felix Hayes as Ferdinand Von Hebra.
Semmelweis would eventually die in an Asylum, largely unrecognised for the work he had done in improving hygiene. Not only does Rylance capture the anguish of not being believed, Tom Morris’s nifty direction ensures the audience can empathise with that pain despite Semmelweis’s sometimes unwarranted erratic behaviour. Ti Green’s minimalist set gives the women who have died a platform on which to observe proceedings below.
Dr Semmelweis is utterly fascinating in every respect, especially as it unearths such a vital piece of forgotten, or ignored, history. As a pioneer of medicine, Mark Rylance leads an impressive cast in this gripping historical drama.