“Dr Semmelweis”, Bristol Old Vic

Crysse Morrison in Bristol
27 January 2022

Bristol Old Vic director Tom Morris pulled off what many will consider a coup when Mark Rylance agreed to develop his own personal project with this theatre company. The result is Dr Semmelweis, the true story of the doctor who found a way to fight the bacteria killing women in childbirth in the nineteenth century.

With hindsight it seems extraordinary that hundreds of women died because the experts in charge hadn’t thought that washing their hands after dissecting cadavers before thrusting them into the bodies of women in labour might be a good idea, but this was the revolutionary and life-saving concept that Dr Semmelweis came up with before sadly parting company with his sanity, along with his wife and reputation.


Mark Rylance as Dr Semmelweis. Photo credit: Geraint Lewis.


It’s not a straight-forward hurtle from obstetrics to madness, however. There is much reverie and wafting dance, mostly by dream images, en route, and some violent rows as the pioneering Hungarian doctor is obstructed by the hostility of his superior (Alan Williams) and by his own unfortunate manner: an incoherence mingled with arrogance and, sadly, the approaching insanity which finally claims him.

Mark Rylance is mesmerizing in this role, managing to hold the audience’s hopes that he may battle through his own crazy notions just as he battled through those of the hospital authorities, and come through somehow in the end. The set, conceived by Ti Green, effectively evokes an alien clinical environment while also providing balconies where the ghostly mothers, killed by bad science, dance around in the mind of tortured, obsessive, Dr Semmelweis. (Choreography Antonia Franceschi, diaphanous costumes by Ti Green.)

This is a stunning production and we in the southwest are privileged that Mark Rylance brought his personal project – which actually predates the current pandemic – to Bristol Old Vic.  News is out now that Tom Morris is stepping down as artistic director of the theatre he steered to high international reputation during the last 12 years – I can’t believe it’s actually that long since I persuaded Tom to have a breakfast meeting at the quayside to talk about his plans for Plays International. Under his steerage, Bristol Old Vic has been transformed physically as well as artistically: this production, with its emphasis on essential innovation against all odds, is curiously apt despite the personal tragedy of Dr Semmelweis himself.


Mark Rylance, Thalissa Teixeira and the mothers. Photo credit: Geraint Lewis.