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Dr Semmelweis, Bristol Old Vic & Now London, Harold Pinter Theatre

The below review was first written as a review of Dr Semmelweis as that was first performed in Bristol, at the Old Vic, in 2022. It was written for the end-of-year exhibition of the intercalated BA in Medical Humanities. Dr Semmelweis is now running at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London.

'On 21st January 2022, to kick off the start of our second term, we went to see the highly anticipated play, Dr (Ignaz) Semmelweis, at the Bristol Old Vic. As the oldest continuously working theatre in the English-speaking world, the Old Vic provided a great backdrop for the glance into history. Covid had halted many things, but in the renovated interior of the Old Vic, as part of a bustling crowd of eager audience members, the months (years?) of empty stages seemed a lifetime away.

As we arrived at our seats, the theatre was dimly lit with the rich hues of blues and purples and nothing but a chessboard and empty seats to set the stage. As the play began, the stage filled, and we were emersed in 19th-century Austrian maternity wards where we are surrounded by the screams and cries of the impoverished mothers, likely fated to die in the absence of proper antiseptic procedures. Mark Rylance was the steadfast Hungarian doctor who disrupts the conventional medical hierarchy by insisting that the many deaths of the mothers could – and must – be prevented.

Rylance played out Semmelweis’s, the foreign doctor’s, struggle to be accepted as a startling tragedy of grand proportions. We see Rylance cross the stage in a hurried frenzy as his unfaltering moral compass proves stronger than the oppressive medical forces that deny his theories. Live musicians provide the cries of the violins that push against the stark silence as Semmelweis loses his confidence and mental strength. The play fluctuates between being acting and dance. Dancers surrounded Semmelweis, full of expressionist movement choreographed by Antonia Franceschi. Their silent bodies were tossed across the stage, intertwining with Semmelweis’s own tortured form. They staged the dead and the dying women who plagued Semmelweis’s conscience. The play lent on an array of the arts - acting, music and dance created an intense environment which mirrored the force of Semmelweis’s mind, ideas, and ultimate demise.

Having come across Semmelweis in the first term unit, ‘The Philosophy and History of Medicine’, the retelling of his tale through the arts gave a newfound perspective on the hardship and turmoil of Semmelweis’s journey. At times we were in his ideas and elated, at others we pitied the souring of his own personal relationships as the price of his own scientific journey. And despite being a retelling of an individual story, it was hard not to see the present in the play. Semmelweis’s plea for hygene, the washing of hands, which now seems so self-evident, met a backlash of condemnation and ridicule. Working out what is best for public health, and getting that message across, are two different matters.'

Chloe Wong, June 2022


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