While the play brings to life a fascinating story and person who deserves more recognition, in terms of the way in which it is presented doesn’t go deep enough says Emma Clarendon.

Photo: Simon Annand

One of the great joys of theatre is the way in which it can be used to shine a light on aspects of history that are little known or people who deserve a little bit more attention thanks to the way which they contributed to the world that we live in today thanks to the discoveries that they made. The story Ignaz Semmelweis is certainly one of those figures that deserves more recognition than he got from his peers at the time.

Written by Stephen Brown along with the show’s star Mark Rylance, the play brings to life the story of Dr Semmelweis, who started to notice a pattern in the way in which women who came down with puerperal fever (also known as childbed fever) were treated through his work at the Vienna General, with one side being the doctors ward and the other the focus of nurses. But when Semmelweis’s discovery becomes known and is dismissed by his superior, Semmelweis soon becomes frustrated and obsessed in trying to highlight the significance of his discovery – which to a modern day audience seems particularly tragic.

Photo: Simon Annand

While watching this play, it feels very much a story of two halves which reflects the two writers seemingly conflicting approach to bringing this story to life. On the one hand, you have Semmelweis making his discovery and its significance, while on the other the audience is witnessing the impact that not being able to save many women’s lives has on him – with one writer it both sides could be perfectly blended but with two neither side feels as though it goes deeply enough. This being said, the way in which the subject matter is dealt with is accessible to all and does leave you wanting to discover more about the history behind it.

Directed by Tom Morris, it is a very busy production with ballet dancers and live musicians surrounding the cast, enhancing the fact that this discovery impacted the lives of women who for many years suffered needlessly thanks to the fact that many didn’t accept Dr Semmelweis’s discovery that cleanliness is very much a key part of ensuring that giving birth helps save the lives of women and babies. However, on the flip side of this it also means that you are never entirely sure of exactly where to concentrate your focus on, particularly as the stage revolves.

Thanks to Richard Howell’s lighting design and Adrian Sutton’s sound design, there is a dreamlike quality to the production which really reflects the way in which the play flits backwards and forwards from the past to the present as seen through Semmelweis’s mind. You do get a real sense of the horror and passion the doctor feels about trying to save these women’s lives, many of them who were poor and didn’t have access to high quality health care to support them when in labour, with the choreography by Antonia Franceschi capturing this in a mesmerising way. It is just a shame that when all of this is put on stage at once it feels too much and overwhelming.

Performance wise, Mark Rylance as Semmelweis delivers an understated performance that while has flashes of moments in showing the doctor’s passion for his cause can also leave you wanting more. Pauline Mclynn as nurse Anna Muller is wonderful support, with her no -nonsense and straight talking approach that highlights the frustration that women who were qualified nurses and know what they were talking about having helped many women through giving birth.Equally as strong is Ewan Black as Franz Arneth who offers a wonderful grounded and charismatic performance.

It is a truly fascinating story (and one that I did go off and research further afterwards), with Dr Semmelweis truly deserving more credit than he got. However, while this play is well intentioned, the production is very busy and I longed to delve deeper into the heart of the story and discovery he made.

By Emma Clarendon

Dr Semmelweis plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre until the 7th October . To book tickets click here.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐


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