By Jasper Price, Third Year Theatre and Performance Studies
A fragile mind stands on the precipice. Around him, the ghosts that haunt his past float through a darkened stage. His greatness forgotten, he sinks into memory, never knowing what a mark he made upon the world.
Mark Rylance gleams in this new production from Bristol Old Vic’s Artistic Director, Tom Morris. With themes as relevant today as in the 1880s, this new play is a startling look at one of history’s greats, a man whose life was as complicated as what he would go on to discover.
Dr Semmelweis presents a very stylised view into a deteriorating mind. The play was conceived and written by Rylance together with Stephen Brown and follows the story of Hungarian Doctor and pioneer of infectious diseases; Ignaz Semmelweis. With plenty of on-the-nose references to COVID-19 and handwashing, the play is certainly relevant to what we have all come to call the norm.
Standout performances include Clemmie Sveaas as Lisa Elstein, who’s portrayal of the late mother was very poignant and distressing. Others who stood out were Ignaz’s devout wife, played by Thalissa Teixeira and Sandy Grierson’s Kolletschka, who provided many of the comic moments in the first act.
We must of course talk about Mark Rylance, who approached the title role with respect and a clear amount of admiration. This is clearly a passion project for him and Brown, and this was evident in his portrayal. He showed the sharp decline in Semmelweis’s health very well, and despite being troubled, the audience were able to sympathise with the character at the bitter end.
With choreography from Antonia Franceschi, the piece has many dance sequences which explore the thoughts of Semmelweis. The ensemble of expectant mothers creates these moments and as the doctor overflows with thoughts or delusions, so too does the stage with bodies. The dances sometimes become tangled with the doctor’s ‘real world’ and this blurs the lines between his thoughts and the horrors playing out in the hospital ward. These movement sections are dazzling, but at times perhaps stay with us for a moment too long.
The interactions combined with Adrian Sutton’s harrowing score being performed live ensure that the overall tone of the performance is gloom. In terms of the play’s aesthetic, Ti Green’s set design must be praised. The Old Vic’s stage revolve is fully utilised, working with fluidity and organic nature of the play.
One sequence showed an anatomy and birth taking place simultaneously, an open door between them. As these two events played out, they almost merge into one symphony of life and death, which perfectly demonstrated the play’s main themes.
Above all this play presents a very effective take on the world of medicine and discovery, but at times languishes in its own stylistic choices. However, this doesn’t detract too much from the stark beauty of the play.
Featured Image:Geraint Lewis
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