Dr Semmelweis

Having emerged from a period in which we were exhorted to wash our hands at every opportunity and instructed on how to carry out the ritual, it is strange to go back in time to an era when such meticulous hygiene was unknown, even in hospitals. Yet in the age of Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1818- 1865) to suggest that disease and infection could be passed from one person to another by physical contact was regarded as medical heresy, while those who propounded such ideas were made the subject of ridicule.

A dramatic masterpiece

That was the fate, and worse, that awaited Semmelweis when he took up his position as assistant to Professor Johann Klein in the First Obstetrical Clinic of the Vienna General Hospital. Now regarded as a pioneer, that description conjures up a false image of the man who nervously entered the revered institution on his birthday in 1846.

Mark Rylance in the eponymous role gives an impassioned performance that captures the awkwardness and frustrations of Semmelweis. He was confronted immediately by the entrenched hierarchy of the institution. Alan WIliams, as Klein, exudes haughty intolerance in dealing with the upstart doctor, epitomising reluctance to change and the narrow perspective that held back research in order to maintain status and the favour of those in power. The simple logic of the Hungarian newcomer carries no sway with him who also has to suffer the disdain of his Austrian superiors.

The ethnic contempt is one of many aspects of this play, created by Stephen Brown with Rylance, that give it a contemporary relevance; of people judged by where they are from and the language they speak rather than credited with what they can contribute. Semmelweis was no smooth talker and never fitted into the polite society of his day. Rylance’s animated stutterings reveal a man who could bumble away to no avail with his superiors, while women and children died around him, but not equally. Those in the Doctors’ Ward had far less chance of survival than those in the ward run by the Midwives. But why? This division held the evidence that no one else had bothered to examine. He has to turn to the statistically-minded intern Franz Arneth (Ewan Black) and the long-suffering senior midwife, Anna Müller in order to move forward with his hypothesis. Pauline McLynn gives a classic matronly portrayal of Müller, the no-nonsense woman who has given her life to the service of others and who now relishes being valued as a co-conspirator against the powers that be, who have kept her in her place as a women for years. It’s just another example of the shortcomings of a male-dominated, stratified society.

Rising above that, Amanda Wilkin elegantly portrays Maria Semmelweis, the doctor’s devoted wife who ultimately struggles to cope with his mental decline and increasingly debauched behaviour. None of this affects Daniel York Loh in a tightly focussed and humourously eccentric performance as the pathologist, Karl von Rokitansky, who relishes the endless supply of corpses for dissection.

Director Tom Morris makes full use of all the resources at his disposal. He crafts his staging around the flexible period set by Ti Green that has an oculus diffusing beams of Richard Howell’s mood-changing lighting design onto the stage and giving an added spin to the revolve which enables smooth transitions from scene to scene. There are times that feel overcrowded, with a string quartet aptly playing Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, and other accompaniment by Adrian Sutton, taking positions in numerous locations, and a female corps de ballet choreographed by Antonia Franceschi, that reminds us of the the suffering of women and the spirits of the departed.

At times, there is perhaps just too much going on, but Dr Semmelweis is a dramatic masterpiece, that credits a man who died in ignominy, but whose chlorinated handwash was a major medical breakthrough that has saved countless lives.

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The Blurb

Mark Rylance returns to the West End as one of medicine’s greatest pioneers, maverick Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis – the man whose research could save many millions of mothers’ lives. But what good is a discovery that is ignored?

In Vienna, a city of artistic and scientific revolution, thousands of women are still dying in childbirth each and every year. Only Dr Semmelweis can see the invisible killer at work, but to stop it, he must convince his colleagues to admit culpability and approve change.

Damned by an establishment that questions his methods, his motives and even his sanity, Semmelweis is haunted by the women he has failed to save. Can he finally convince the greatest doctors of 19th Century Europe to accept his argument – and what will it cost him to make an almost impossible case?

Directed by Tom Morris, featuring live music by Adrian Sutton and original choreography by Antonia Franceschi of Balanchine’s New York City Ballet

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