In Review

Dr Semmelweis: Mark Rylance offers a ‘mesmerising turn’

Story follows the 19th century Hungarian physician who ‘realised the life-saving value of hand hygiene’

In the spring, Mark Rylance will be reprising his role in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, said Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph – but first he offers a “mesmerising turn” in a “compelling” new drama at the Bristol Old Vic.

Dr Semmelweis is about the 19th century Hungarian physician who “realised the life-saving value of hand hygiene, yet was treated like dirt” by the medical establishment. The piece is co-written by Rylance and playwright Stephen Brown; and although it was conceived pre-pandemic, it could “hardly have its finger more on the jittery pulse of our virus-ravaged age” – showing vividly how “human failings, from prejudice to egotism, can thwart medical progress”.

Rylance is sensationally good, said Quentin Letts in The Sunday Times. He can “spin on a penny, switching from intensity to gurgling merriment”; every “vocal check makes you watch him only more closely”.

In his hands, Semmelweis’s story becomes a “tragedy of almost Shakespearean proportions”, said Arifa Akbar in The Guardian – the diffident hero undone by his “unbending sense of right”. Director Tom Morris stages the play with a “magnificent”, almost dance-like fluidity, using expressionist music and movement to take us inside Semmelweis’s mind. And there’s a chorus of ghostly dancers – the women he’s been unable to save.

Adrian Sutton’s music is “spellbinding”, said Patrick Marmion in The Daily Mail. Reminiscent of Schubert’s Death And The Maiden, it’s played live by a string quartet “with urgency and passion”.

Overall, though, this is a good play, not a great one, said Alice Saville in the FT – atmospheric but uneven, and “bordering on the repetitive”. For instance, we’re frequently told that the women on wards run by doctors are three times as likely to die as those on wards run by midwives. Yet we “never meet one of these midwives, and the lone female voice of Nurse Müller (Jackie Clune) is underwritten as a kind of plucky everywoman”. Still, it is “undeniably a good yarn”, and beautifully acted.

Bristol Old Vic. Until 19 February

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