We chatted to Jason about staring in the upcoming West End production of Dr Semmelweis at the Harold Pinter Theatre from the 29th June 2023.
Hi, thanks so much for chatting to me. What can you tell me about Dr Semmelwiess? Written with years of research and already boasting a successful run at Bristol Old Vic, Dr
Semmelweis is the gripping true story of a doctor who discovers why thousands of women are dying in the 1840s of the disease then known as childbed fever. It’s a period piece told with a modern spin, dealing with relevant themes to today’s society. It’s so epic in its telling; at points, it feels like a ghost story; at other times, it has the makings of a murder mystery. Still, at its heart, it’s a tragic tale of a complex hero in Semmelweis, who is hurling himself at the giant task of trying to reinvent the medical society.
Semmelweis is a figure desperately trying to overcome the authorities above him. He’s an extraordinarily complex character and someone who I hadn’t heard of until coming on board, but his story needs to be known by all, and Mark is the perfect person to play him. Mark brings a captivating portrayal of Semmelweis and is the ultimate storyteller, with a powerful range from vulnerability to ferocity. The way he commands the stage and takes every audience member on a journey is a sight to behold, and he’s the best company member any actor could ask for. It’s a real honour to be working with him and the rest of the team, who are all incredible at their chosen disciplines.
How does it feel to be part of this production? What I love about the play is how epic it is in its scale; it pushes the boundaries of storytelling in a way I’m sure will engage all audiences, and we all firmly believe in the story that we’re telling. It’s such a fantastic company to be a part of. Director Tom Morris is a visionary who intricately directs this vast piece, and everyone involved is top of their game; to be in a room filled with theatrical geniuses on the daily is a pretty nice place to be, and I’m in awe of the amount of talent in
the room every day.
The production combines multiple art disciplines in acting, dance and classical music, which connects to make a potent cocktail that brings to life a gripping story, beautifully blending contemporary and classically inspired text. Mark’s brilliant idea of having ballet dancers as mothers who have been killed by childbed fever is a unique and powerful storytelling tool that complements the story inmany ways, as does the live orchestra, who are outstanding musicians.
Could you tell me more about the character you play? I’m understudying three characters, Franz Arneth, Ferdinand Von Hebra and Jakob Kolletshcka, who are all real doctors from Semmelweis’s life. The great thing about understudying these characters is that they have such different voices, a sign of good writing.
Arneth is a modest genius who looks up to Semmelweis, having been his most loyal disciple, and is a driving force behind the motor of the story, which is great fun to play. Von Hebra is incredibly grounded, witty, and a force to be reckoned with, and Kolletshcka is a gloriously fun, passionate revolutionist. They combine to be what we call in the rehearsal room “the Scooby Doo Gang” – along with Semmelweis, they are desperately on a mission to discover what is behind the cause of childbed fever. All of them have their great qualities, and it’s been fantastic to explore them in the rehearsal process, as well as watching my peers who are leading the roles – all of them outstanding actors.
What do you think we can still learn from Dr Semmelwiess’s story? There’s so much to learn from this piece. The story is about a historical figure we should be incredibly grateful for, and at its heart, it’s a piece about how we need to listen to those trying to think outside the box.
It also has something to say about the human condition and how we carry our ghosts. In a way, I feel it’s a cautionary tale – that we must listen to new ideas and never stop believing in our ambitions and dreams, even when people aren’t listening. Still, it’s also about compassion and how it’s always essential to find empathy (which even Semmelweis could’ve done with, at times!) I hope audiences are empowered to make positive changes to the world and never give up hope for those dreams.
How has it been working on the production so far? From day one, I’ve been blown away by the amount of talent involved with the play, which makes each day-to-day loads of bloody fun. On the first day, we did a read-through on its feet, and each rehearsal day brought the same level of daringness and ambition – it only took a week to get through the entire play, which is quite a feat! So many great creatives are involved; it makes the whole project riveting, and getting to grips with such excellent text is a blessing – but even that has been a
process, and luckily, Mark, who has co-written the piece, has an openness to adapting the text. Even after its successful run in Bristol, we’re still developing the script to be the best it can be.
I love how Mark and Tom talk and think about theatre. In particular, Mark’s way of keeping scenes fresh and different every night is an actor’s dream – it’s what theatre should be; alive and current,constantly responding to its environment. So really, it’s been a blast! I can’t wait to get on stage – I think Mark, Tom and Sonia Friedman have built a fantastic theatrical company, which feels like a little creative family in which we’re free to explore and play. It’s going to be a very fun run!
By Emma Clarendon
Dr Semmelweis plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre from the 29th June until the 7th October . To book tickets click here.