'dr. Reviews of Semmelweis and "The Glow": Tales From the Asylum

LONDON — “Wash your hands! Wash your hands!” This plea has resounded around the world in recent years, and it gives topical power to “ ...


LONDON — “Wash your hands! Wash your hands!” This plea has resounded around the world in recent years, and it gives topical power to “Dr Semmelweis,until February 19 at the Bristol Old Vic, a beautiful 18th century performance hall in the South West of England.

Its urgent speaker is the titular physician, a Hungarian-born physician in 19th-century Vienna who pioneered antisepsis only to die in 1865, aged 47. It was left to subsequent physicians like Joseph Lister to take over his work.

The play tells the centuries-old story of a man against the system, in this case a visionary whose desire to reverse a high death rate among young mothers is met with a largely reckless establishment. Worthy of Ibsen and Previously retold in a Howard Sackler play that made the rounds of Broadway but never made it there, Semmelweis’s story appears here as a star vehicle for Mark Rylance. The award-winning actor (three Tonys and an Oscar) co-wrote the play with Stephen Brown.

Director Tom Morris helms the venerable Bristol venue and has given Semmelweis’s all-too-short life a busy and bustling production that includes actors spilling out of Ti Green’s turntable in the auditorium on occasion, with live musicians and dancers on hand to amplify discordant emotions. of the room. The dancers, choreographed by Antonia Franceschi, give whirling physical expression to Semmelweis’ increasingly disorderly mind and mothers who lost their lives to hygienic neglect. The Salomé String Quartet weaves its way through the events, playing snippets of Schubert and lending an artistic flare to a serious subject.

If that all sounds like a lot of embellishments, it’s fair to say that the first act in particular feels like stage business is used to disguise some pretty boilerplate writing. The play begins at the end, with Semmelweis in Hungary reminiscing, alongside his calm-looking wife, Maria (Thalissa Teixeira), about a climate of contamination in Vienna that has done irreparable damage to the doctor’s psyche.

How can a much-vaunted “city of new ideas” not be more responsive to the investigations of a young maverick who stumbles upon the disinfectant potential of chlorine? This grocer’s son has determined that death rates in the largest hospital in the world – as the general in Vienna was then – are three times higher in the doctors’ clinic than in the midwives’. The “corpse particles” are posited as the culprit, carried by impure hands from the autopsy room to the delivery room and turning the hospital into a de facto slaughterhouse.

The locals don’t have it. “Nuts in name, nuts in nature,” remarks one of Semmelweis’s colleagues with disdain, referring to the first name of this upstart, Ignaz. Never mind that the insult didn’t make much sense considering these people probably didn’t speak English.

After the intermission, the stripped-down, explanatory nature of the writing continues. If Semmelweis is right, we are told, “the whole future of medicine will be changed.” There’s also a line on the possible effectiveness of bleach that draws striking parallels to one of the most, uh, peculiar proposals for defeating the current pandemic.

Through it all, Rylance is an elastic physical presence. He brings a stammering restlessness to the role of a radical thinker whose thoughts sometimes exceed his words. You have to smile when this protean actor, acclaimed on TV and in the cinema, but above all dedicated to the stage, speaks in passing of “not wanting to waste time at the theater either”, and it’s nice to find among the supporting roles from such other theater stalwarts as Alan Williams, in stern form as obstetrician Johann Klein, Semmelweis’ nemesis.

More than anything, ‘Dr. Semmelweis’ whets the appetite for Rylance’s return to the London stage in April, reprising his seismic performance in Jez Butterworth’s play”Jerusalem“, first seen at the Royal Court in 2009. This same London address, important for new writing, is currently hosting a piece by Alistair McDowall, “The light“, it’s really crazy, although oddly enough.

The title character of “Dr. Semmelweiss” died misunderstood in an asylum, and McDowall’s time-traveling drama begins two years earlier, with a dimly lit figure fearfully inhabiting a windowless cell. This figure, a woman (Ria Zmitrowicz), is next seen in a number of settings and centuries, ranging from the 1300s, in the company of a warrior figure (Tadhg Murphy) who may have wandered from “Game of Thrones”, to 343 AD and onward to the 1970s and beyond.

What in heaven’s name is going on? You could ask McDowall the same of his 2016 play for the Royal Court, “X“, which was put on Pluto.

Screaming and apocalyptic only to turn rapturously poetic in its final monologue, “The Glow” is best seen as a sensory experience in which lighting and sound join the writer’s freewheeling imagination to evoke a lonely world. and difficult which nevertheless allows the heat of the title. The intermission, lasting only around 40 minutes, gives the audience plenty of time to reflect on what they have seen.

The more literal theatergoer will be distracted by the play’s seemingly willful opacity, but that in itself follows the experimental bent of a theater defined in part by the playwright Caryl Churchillwhose own curiosity and disregard for convention may have offered a beacon to McDowall.

For my part, I must salute the full-throttle production of Vicky Featherstone, the Court’s art director, in tandem with a design team in which the mercurial lighting of Jessica Hung Han Yun reigns supreme. Fisayo Akinade and Rakie Ayola provide valuable support as more recognizable participants in a world with which Zmitrowicz’s initially mute wife has a hesitant relationship. Primarily considered a spirit medium – yes, you read that right – Ayola can also display a beautiful singing voice.

With the mysterious spectral figure at the center of the room, McDowall presented a gift to Zmitrowicz, an up-and-coming actress who has been gaining notice lately largely in the Almeida. Alternately brooding and feverish, introverted but eloquent, this performer holds us back everywhere, even when the room she lives in ricochets in all directions around her.

Dr Semmelweis. Directed by Tom Morris. Bristol Old Vic, until February 19.

The light. Directed by Vicky Featherstone. Royal Court Theatre, until March 5.

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