There’s an added poignancy in watching Stephen Brown and Sir Mark Rylance’s Dr Semmelweis as theatregoers emerge from the recent round of Coronavirus restrictions – a play that charts the discovery of modern infection control.
What is accepted knowledge today – namely the existence of bacteria and the importance of hand washing in preventing infection – was a radical provocation in 1846. This was the year that Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis set out to answer the horrifying question of why so many more women were dying of childbed fever on the doctors’ ward of his Vienna hospital than the midwives’ ward opposite.
Childbed fever was understood as an unfortunate consequence of airborne illness and women’s inherent fragility at the time. The stark difference in mortality rate – known to ward nurses and the terrified women arriving to give birth – was not something the hospital establishment was willing to rock the boat by investigating. Even in light of new evidence and a simple but ingenious experiment by Semmelweis.
What follows is a moving exploration of what we choose to see, and ultimately what that makes of us. Rylance is electrifying as the dogmatic but vulnerable doctor – a man who is both haunted and hardened by the grief he carries. A talented supporting cast, including Daniel York Loh as one of Semmelweis’ champions in Vienna and Thelissa Texeira as his concerned wife Maria, strive to temper the troubled man’s behaviour as his endeavour consumes him.
Deft staging takes us from the bowels of the autopsy room to the banks of the Danube. And Antonia Franchesci’s powerful choreography makes the invisible women of this story visible again – as alive in Semmelweis’ mind as they are dancing on the stage. While there are heavy-handed moments in the script, Dr Semmelweis is too full of ambition to lag for long. It’s quite possible that you’ll leave the Bristol Old Vic with a renewed vigour for smashing the patriarchy – just remember to wash your hands first.
Reviewed by April Delaney