fri 01/07/2022

Dr Semmelweis, Bristol Old Vic review - dazzling but overloaded | reviews, news & interviews

Dr Semmelweis, Bristol Old Vic review - dazzling but overloaded

Dr Semmelweis, Bristol Old Vic review - dazzling but overloaded

Mark Rylance brilliant as rebel doctor in a show let down by an overdose of ingenuity

Dr Semmelweis (Mark Rylance) and the full companyGeraint Evans

Dr Semmelweis, a star vehicle for Mark Rylance, one of Britain’s most versatile and talented actors, fills the Bristol Old Vic with a dizzying kaleidoscope of words, sounds and images.

Tom Morris – the theatre’s energetic and inventive director – and his team have created a show that combines physical theatre, dance, the live music of a string quartet, and a sparingly used revolving stage to dazzling effect. The text is a collaboration between Rylance and writer Stephen Brown.

The story focuses on the revolutionary work of Dr Semmelweis, a mid-19th century Hungarian doctor who discovered that the high mortality rate among women giving birth in Vienna’s General Hospital was caused by the doctors infecting them. He radically challenged the explanations of the time, when he figured out that the men who attended the births had come straight from the slab where autopsies were performed. He made the way for the work of Lister and Pasteur who recognised his pioneering discovery and his ability to see things differently.

Rylance (pictured below) plays Semmelweis as a feverish and angst-ridden soul, a brilliant outsider, tormented by his sense of inferiority as a Hungarian in Vienna, the Austrian seat of the Habsburg Empire of which his native land was a colony. He exists precariously, in a constant emotional see-saw between rude arrogance and self-doubt, messianic conviction and anxious vulnerability. The actor inhabits the character’s tortured spirit so tangibly that he dominates the action, whether he stands still, in terror and wonder, or whether he is pacing frenetically around the stage. Semmelweis is in constant conflict with his authoritarian and careerist boss, Dr Klein, a solid performance by Alan Williams.

The rebel doctor is supported by fellow doctors and a stalwart nurse who are both inspired by his brilliance and appalled by his lack of communication skills. Daniel York Loh, as Rokitansky, the surgeon who teaches anatomy, catches very vividly the theatrical quality that goes with wielding the scalpel on a cadaver. Felix Hayes as the doctor Ferdinand von Hebra, brings to the part a touching mixture of common-sense and vulnerability that contrasts well with Semmelweis’s emotional excesses.There is his wife as well (sympathetically played by Thalissa Texeira) who loves and supports him, and is finally and brutally rejected by him, and a powerful performance by Jackie Clune as Anna Muller, the feisty head midwife who helps Semmelweis make his breakthrough but is ruthlessly rejected.

The show deftly flashes forward and back: the device could be clunky, but here, the dual dimension of the narrative functions with graceful seamlessness. The play as a whole is nothing if not courageously ambitious, and the relatively small size of the Bristol stage amplifies the play’s impact.

But the contained space, in spite of a clever stage design that makes it feel as if the darkness at the back is a kind of abyss, produces a no doubt intentional helter-skelter of activity that at times dissolves into confusion. The central scene in which the revolving stage takes our attention to and from the “death room’” where the grim business of autopsy reigns and the beds where new life is born will undoubdtedly work a good deal better in a larger space.

This isn't just a story about the way in which radical innovation in science and medicine requires a kind of open-ness and vulnerability that doesn’t always sit well in a world where men are determined to hold onto power. The authors and directors are also – quite rightly – looking at the way in which the female body has been misused and misunderstood by men. It is questionable how much the real Dr Semmelweis understood the extent to which he was an actor in the early stages of women’s liberation. He was most probably too naïve for that.

The show emphasises, poetically rather than didactically, the social, cultural and political aspects of his story: the victims of deadly post-partum infections were mostly the female poor, who were attended by student doctors who dissected every day, rather than midwives. As befits a contemporary re-imagining of 19th century history, there is a strong female presence in the show more than just background to Semmelweis’s heroic and tragic story. The ghosts of the women who died after childbirth, played by a group of dancers, haunt the stage, sometimes a little too portentously.

This is a play so packed full of ideas that it sometimes feels overwhelming

The ambition of the production, which owes something to the busy style of Bristol Old Vic regulars Kneehigh, and the often very impressive results, suffers from excess, exaggerated no doubt by the cramped size of the house. Music is often a powerful element in theatre. Here the all-female quartet, restlessly move around the stage and the auditorium, as they play – adequately rather than brilliantly – extracts from Schubert’s classic “Death and the Maiden” and other romantic-flavoured sounds. The music, and some of the dance, is clearly intended to express Semmelweis’s inner turmoil and Mark Rylance occasionally gets drawn in to the dance, to good effect. There are moments when the music serves the play well, effectively underscoring shifts in emotional colour, but it’s too persistently present, like the wall-to-wall music that contemporary fashion dictates should run almost constantly under dialogue in films, documentaries and podcasts.

The multiple layering of ideas and the complex narrative generate plenty of intellectual excitement: Death, for instance, the central character in a colourful ballet scene and the grim porter who cleans up the death-dealing remains from autopsies, are both played with suitable lugubriousness by Joshua Ben-Tovim. The resonance is thought-provoking, and it’s subtly done. Overall, the complex warp and weft of action, themes and dialogue is well-crafted. The acting, not least Mark Rylance’s brio performance, the inventive and versatile set (by Ti Green ) and the subtle colour-coding of the costumes (the work of Antonia Franceschi) all of these, taken separately,  pack a quality punch. But there's perhaps a surfeit of skills, piled on with over-reaching ambition.

This excessive display of ingenuity comes at the expense of deep and stirring emotion. Could there be, at the heart of Dr Semmelweis’s brilliance and torment, a kind of emotional absence? With so much focus on the central character and Rylance’s often jaw-dropping and at times affecting performance, might the show itself not be possessed, just as the lead actor is?  Here is man so obsessed by his discovery, and tragically drawn into the maelstrom of his frustrations that he becomes incapable of  empathy. Dr Semmelweis's unbridled intellectual passion and the lack of heart this breeds may have seeped into the character of the show itself: theatrical fireworks that cannot fail to impress, but, strangely, lack a dimension that would make it a masterpiece.

The multiple layering of ideas and the complex narrative generate plenty of intellectual excitement

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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I saw this last weekend, and it's a fantastic production.

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