30 June 2023
DR SEMMELWEIS (Harold Pinter Theatre) Review

A quick bit of context:  Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was a 19th Hungarian physician who was the first (or one of the first) to work out the importance of hand washing and, more specifically, antiseptic procedures.  He tried to implement these at the hospital in Vienna where he worked in the obstetric clinic, but, predictably, was ridiculed and eventually dismissed from his post.  This shows gives a slightly fictionalised account of his life, work, and death (some characters and circumstances have been changed for dramatic purposes).

Although an ensemble production, Mark Rylance, in the title role, steals the show hands down.  His performance is nuanced, and he shifts from excitement to rage to confusion in a very natural way. He also gives us an understated yet stark view into what happens when one has no respect for colleagues and tries to get his way by being the smartest boy in the room.  Rylance is simply mesmerising during those moments.  He sweeps up the audience in his excitement.  There is a particular bit of physical acting when Semmelweis is at a ballet with his colleagues, and Rylance executes it with such grace and precision, you simply cannot believe that he is in his 60s.

I was a little bit put off by how he spoke when his character got all muddled in recalling the past:  the way he stuttered and repeated words made it sound a bit like this was a tool to aid Rylance with remembering the text he was forgetting.  Maggie Smith in “A German Life” showed off this “recollection” style much more seamlessly.  But I am being a bit picky here.

It’s an interesting and engaging story, but it does hinge on the lead performances, and every last one of them delivers.

Pauline McLynn as Nurse Muller; Ewan Black, Felix Hayes, Jude Owusu, and Daniel York Loh as Semmelweis’ colleagues; Amanda Wilkin as his wife; they all match Rylance move for move (though Wilkin does get shrill and preachy toward the end).  McLynn’s character has a few zingers that she delivers superbly and gets a good laugh for it, but I thought they were topical and served no purpose other than Stephen Brown, who co-wrote this play with Rylance, going for a cheap laugh.  It’s a strong play, so it makes me sad to see it fall back on these tactics.

The play is told as a recollection of the past, and so the memories swirling in Dr. Semmelweis’ head are brought to life by ballet dancers.  Choreographed by Antonia Franceschi of Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, I was expecting likes of precision one would see on stage of said NYC Ballet.  It wasn’t as tight and synchronised as I would’ve liked, but I guess it’s good enough to provide background movement in a play?  Perhaps this will get more precise as the run continues…

There is also original music here from Adrian Sutton, beautifully performed by a string quartet.  It’s very atmospheric and adds a welcome level of charm and intimacy to the production.

Tom Morris’ direction and Ti Green’s modular set meld together to keep the audience engrossed in the action and invested in the story. There are several moments when the shadow cast from the ceiling fixture looks like the only thing tethering Rylance to the ground.  As Dr. Semmelweis goes through several transformations over the course of his life, the stage revolves, and Rylance delivers new layers to his character.  A thoroughly enjoyable production.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £7.

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