A few too many bangs for your bucks – Dr Semmelweis review

Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Director Tom Morris throws just about everything into his production of Stephen Brown’s play including, it might be said, the kitchen sink.

Set in mid-19th Century Vienna, it stars Mark Rylance as a Hungarian surgeon who discovers the reason behind the high number of post-partum fatalities in the biggest hospital in Europe through trial and error.

Not so much a hand-wringing plea for hand washing, it is more of an alarming portrait of medical intransigence that some believe is still with us today.

Semmelweis knows that washing hands in diluted chlorine reduces the number of deaths in childbirth but cannot prove why.

“I have told my friends,” says a cynical colleague, “Invest in bleach.” It’s a gripping story and Rylance is superb as the abrasive, frustrated junior doctor challenging the establishment to little avail. 

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Ti Green’s atmospheric set suggests both an operating theatre and lecture hall, complete with a dome and wood panelling.

The cast is augmented by ballet dancers representing the ghosts of dead mothers (a kind of wordless Greek Chorus) and four female musicians (Salomé Quartet) who hover on the fringes underlining moments of drama.

The actors are in tip-top form, notably Pauline McLynn and Jude Owusu as two of Semmelweis’s supporters, in spite of some underwritten characterisations.

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As the socially untutored Semmelweis, Rylance is terrific, unravelling slowly as he is thwarted at every turn by the vanity and egotism of his superiors until he descends into unstable paranoia, turning on everyone including his long-suffering wife (Amanda Wilkin) and his best friends.

This is one of those rare productions that gives you a few too many bangs for your bucks.

Less might have been more.

Dr Semmelweis, Harold Pinter Theatre until October 7, Tickets:  0844 871 7627

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