Theatre Review - Dr Semmelweis

In 1847, the Hungarian physician, Ignaz Semmelweis, discovered that puerperal fever (also known as “childbed fever”) could be dramatically reduced by regularly disinfecting hands.

Watching Dr Semmelweis, it’s hard not to recall the early days of the pandemic when, coincidentally, this production was first being developed for the Bristol Old Vic by director Tom Morris, writer Stephen Brown and Mark Rylance, who also stars as the eponymous doctor. During the interval, I observed several people furiously washing their hands.

Working in Vienna’s illustrious General Hospital, Semmelweis demonstrated that regular hand-washing significantly reduced mortality rates in the maternity wards. These were considerably higher in those run by doctors, who were often rushing from postmortem examinations with scant regard for hygiene.

Semmelweis advocated disinfecting hands with a chlorinated lime solution. However, his views conflicted with the established opinions of the time. Already deemed an outsider, the medical community’s censure of Semmelweis was exacerbated by his strident manner and poor communication skills, and his ideas were rejected.

In 1865, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to an asylum with tragic consequences. It was only posthumously, when Louis Pasteur offered a theoretical explanation for his theories, that Semmelweis’s contribution was finally recognised.

Morris (co-director and producer of War Horse) is well known for his magic touch and Rylance delivers an impressive central performance, but this is a truly collaborative act of storytelling from a brilliant ensemble and creative team.

Ti Green’s stunning design is well utilised by the cast, a female string quartet and chorus of dancers, representing the dead women (expertly choreographed by Antonia Franceschi). They’re thrilling to watch as well as reminding us that it was women who were impacted the most by the arrogance of the male-dominated medical establishment.

Originally published by Westminster Extra

Until October 7