04 July 2023
Harold Pinter Theatre
3.5 out of 5.0 stars
Dr. Semmelweis, transferred from last year’s run in Bristol, is an exploration of the life and work of Hungarian physician and scientist Ignaz Semmelweis, an early pioneer of antiseptic research.
In the mid-18hundreds, Semmelweis works at hospital in Vienna, where he sets out to find out why the obstetrics ward had a mortality rate three times higher than the midwives’ ward. At the time, mortality from childbed fever was incredibly high, costing many women and babies their lives. This was the time before anyone had figured out that hygiene was an important factor in reducing the spread of illness and infections.
In our world today, it seems unfathomable that just two hundred years ago, doctors would not wash their hands or change their clothes between patients, sheets in hospitals would not be changed regularly, and many people feared admission to hospitals as the rates of patients catching infections and death were very high. At Semmelweis’ hospital, doctors would routinely work in the morgue to study corpses before attending patients, touching open wounds, delivering babies. All without cleaning their hands.
Semmelweis’ theory, and incredibly successful tests, that sanitising hands between patients, changing bed clothes frequently, and keeping a high level of hygiene will lead to fewer infections in deaths, was not well received by his peers.
The play is intense, with a revolving stage that quickly changes from operating theatre to maternity ward to sitting room, a string quartet wandering the stage, and seven ballerinas flowing from dancing to taking on the roles of a variety of young women frequenting the hospital. The pacing is fantastic, and while there is no actual audience involvement, the action is taken into the auditorium at times.
I wish some of the women’s characters would have been a bit more fleshed out rather than seeming like tools for a man’s discovery, not playing a role apart from inspiration for change. There could have been chances to expand on their stories, give them some agency and a voice without disrupting the story.
But all in all, it is a fantastic play about the resistance to new ideas that change the world.