MARK Rylance first came across the story of the Hungarian Dr Semmelweis many years ago, and before the outbreak of Covid-19 he and his friend, Bristol Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris, were working on bringing his life to the stage.
It didn’t seem likely that Rylance would be declaiming the diktats of Boris – Wash Your Hands – but that’s just what happens in the extraordinary theatrical experience that is Dr Semmelweis, at the historic Bristol theatre until 12th February. Writer Stephen Brown, with Rylance, has created a powerfully persuasive play about the obsessive, often unhinged, doctor who realised that germs transported from the medical staff to the patients were responsible for thousands of avoidable deaths of women in childbirth and their babies. Tom Morris has incorporated a string quartet and a group of dancers in the telling of the story, but there is none of the multi-media artiness that sometimes accompanies these projects.
This is the most perfect merging of music, words and movement I have ever seen on stage, weaving a mesmeric, anxious, haunted message around the auditorium – used, as it so is often by Morris, to its full potential. Bristol Old Vic has its own ghosts, and now Ignaz Semmeweis’s spectres join them.
It might have been that the young doctor’s discovery was an easy and obvious one, but the animosity with which the simple request to wash hands in chlorine was received by his senior doctors, and those around the world of 1847 was extraordinary. Such a simple change was viewed as an assault on their learning and established practice.
And that reaction drove the young man mad.
Haunted by the ghosts of the women whose death he now realised he had caused by running to their aid directly and unwashed from the autopsy room, he was driven by a passion to put it right, and he didn’t care who he offended to get news of his discovery out. Even his friends and supporters were alienated by his savage outbursts and increasingly peculiar behaviour.
His death in an asylum, still raging about “decaying human matter” as the source of infection, was a blessed relief for the medical world. The understanding, and naming, of bacteria, came hereafter.
Rylance’s performance as the tortured doctor underlines his magnetic versatile talent, and of course it is at the centre of the play, set against Ti Green’s arcaded iron wards and hospital theatres.
Student doctors, pompous administrators, royalty, nursing staff and patients wheel through the narrative, as Semmelweis’s anxiety grows with his conviction that he has discovered the answer to the disease.
Jackie Clune is the devoted nurse, Enyi Okoronkwo the brilliant young number cruncher, Felix Hayes the fellow doctor and Thalissa Teixeira the increasingly hopeless Maria Semmelweis.
Violinists Haim Choi and Coco Inman, with violist Kasia Ziminska and cellist Shizuku Tatsuno, not only play their instruments from around the auditorium but, onstage, also characterise patients in Semmelweis’s wards. They are joined in this by the ghostly dancers
Roseanna Anderson, Megan May Cameron, Megumi Eda, Suzy Halstead and Millie Thomas, with Joshua Ben-Tovim as the wordless hospital porter – and Death.
As Mark Rylance realised, this is a story that needs to be told, in this time of a new plague with medical theories thrown out as “fake news” by an increasingly angry populace.
The creative team has found a way to make stunning theatre out of the intellectual arguments, the agony of death in childbirth and the frustrated passion of a very difficult man.
The play has been extended at Bristol until 19th February. See it if you can. This is one of those productions that will be talked about for many years, and we in the South West can see it before its inevitable and well deserved transfer to London, (after Rylance’s “return” as Johnny Rooster Byron in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.)