REVIEW: Dr Semmelweis, Harold Pinter Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Paul T Davies reviews Dr Semmelweis starring Mark Rylance now playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London.

Dr Semmelweis
Mark Rylance and Felix Hayes. Photo: Simon Annand

Dr. Semmelweis
Harold Pinter Theatre
11 July 2023
4 Stars
Book Tickets

A name many of us do not know, Dr. Semmelweis discovered what we now call bacteria. Observing the differing death rates between the maternity ward and the Doctor’s wards, (where the mortality rate was higher), at Vienna General Hospital, he sets out to find the connection. His simple discovery that hands should washed in chlorine and bed sheets changed after each patient increased the survival rates by 90%. But he was outspoken, raged against his superiors, and for that, he was ostracized. Transferring in from Bristol Old Vic, Tom Morris’s production is elegant, sophisticated, perhaps mitigating against the horror and brutality of the death rates experienced in the hospital wards. A string quartet play live, and a dance troupe provide outstanding interpretations of the themes, performing everything from a ballet that the Doctor interrupts because he cannot distinguish it from reality, and powerful dances of death as the play reaches its conclusion.

Dr Semmelweis
Amanda Wilin and company. Photo: Simon Annand.

Mark Rylance is totally mesmerising as Semmelweis. One of his many gifts is the ability to change gear, emotionally, vocally, and pace-wise, from gentle humour to absolute rage at the injustice inflicted on women and on himself. It is passionate, involving, and heart-breaking. There was a terrible irony to  Semmelweis’s death. Equally powerful is Pauline McLynn as maternity nurse Anna Muller, who remembers every woman who died, (their spirits are constantly onstage and, in the auditorium, haunting the characters), and makes a terrible mistake, the kind we all could make, whilst under extreme pressure. His unkind judgement of her leads to fatal consequences. In a cast of superb performances, there are standouts from Jude Owusu as Jakob, whose accident provides the clue that Semmelweis needs, Felix Hayes and Ewan Black as Semmelweis’s friends and supporters, and Amanda Wilken is given excellent voice as Maria Semmelweis, especially as a powerful narrator in Act Two. Alan Williams gives superb pompous authority to Klein, his objections keeping the death rates high.

Dr Semmelweis
Amanda Wilkin and Mark Rylance. Photo: Simon Annand

Ti Green’s excellent set and costume design gives us a space that moves with seamless fluidity from home to autopsy lecture theatre to hospital wards, and the choreography by Antonia Franceschi has a narrative life of its own. At times this threatened to overwhelm the text, and I occasionally wanted more debate and less physical interpretation. But this does not take anything away from the fact that this is a highly entertaining, informative and educating piece, that has a beating heart of theatricality that makes it a fully absorbing evening at the theatre.

Until 7 October at Harold Pinter Theatre

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