Dr Semmelweis. Photo by Simon Annand

Dr Semmelweis Reviews – Starring Mark Rylance

Reviews are coming in for Dr Semmelweis at the Harold Pinter Theatre, starring Mark Rylance.

Rylance reprises the role of Dr Semmelweis in a production that originally premiered at the Bristol Old Vic theatre in 2022, and is directed by Tom Morris.

The full cast of Dr Semmelweis includes Roseanna Anderson (Marja Seidel/ Baroness Maria-Teresa), Zoe Arshamian (Dance Ensemble), Joshua Ben-Tovim (Hospital Porter/ Death), Ewan Black (Franz Arneth), Chrissy Brooke (Lisa Elstein), Megumi Eda (Aiko Eda), Suzy Halstead (Violet-May Blackledge), Felix Hayes (Ferdinand von Hebra), Pauline McLynn (Anna Müller), Jude Owusu (Jakob Kolletschka), Oxana Panchenko (Dance Ensemble), Millie Thomas (Agnes Barta), Max Westwell (Hospital Porter/ Death), Amanda Wilkin (Maria Semmelweis), Alan Williams (Johann Klein), Daniel York Loh (Karl von Rokitansky), Patricia Zhou (Dance Ensemble), and Helen Belbin, Jason Hogan, Andrew McDonald, with the Salomé Quartet – Haim Choi as Suk Hee Apfelbaum (Music Director/ Violin 1), Coco Inman as Sarah Schmidt (Violin 2), Kasia Zimińska  as Eszter Horowitz (Viola) and Shizuku Tatsuno  as Oshizu Yukimura (Cello).

Joining the cast onstage are 10 ballet dancers and the Salome string Quartet.

Dr Semmelweis was originally developed by the National Theatre Studio and produced by Bristol Old Vic, in association with Sonia Friedman Productions, the National Theatre and Shakespeare Road. 

Set in 19th century Vienna, the play centres on a maverick doctor who makes a discovery that could save hundreds of thousands, but is rejected by the mainstream medical establishment. Years later he is haunted by the ghosts of the women he failed to save and questions if it’s too late to convince the medical establishment.

The creative team also includes Set and Costume Design by Ti Green; Lighting Design by Richard Howell; Choreography by Antonia Franceschi; Music by Adrian Sutton.

Dr Semmelweis is running at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 7 October 2023.

Read reviews of Dr Semmelweis including the Telegraph, Times, and Evening Standard, with further reviews to follow.

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Dr Semmelweis reviews

The Observer

"Mark Rylance mesmerises as the tormented Hungarian doctor"

"... it is for Rylance’s character study of the doctor that this show is a must-see (the medical history is of interest too). Rylance’s Semmelweis is a stiff, formally tormented soul with a little black moustache. In his quieter moments, he looks like one of those 19th-century photographs in which sitters are obliged to keep their faces still lest movement wreck everything. He has an uncanny ability to convey distress through his body, almost without moving: the inward becoming outward."

"The supporting cast is splendid. Amanda Wilkin is affecting as Semmelweis’s baffled wife, and Daniel York Loh terrific as a jaunty ringmaster of autopsies, doffing his top hat to the corpse on the table. Pauline McLynn is involving as the midwife who makes a fatal mistake. Morris’s production is theatrically unerring, the ensemble work outstanding."

Kate Kellaway, The Observer
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The Times

"One of Mark Rylance’s greatest achievements"

"If I told you this was a play about remembering to wash your hands, you might not race to snap up a seat. And yet, in this biographical play about a 19th-century medical pioneer in antiseptic procedures, Mark Rylance has cooked up one of the most singular achievements of his remarkable career."

"Here in London it feels mighty, a show that uses every facet of theatricality, sometimes all at once. A show that, granted, at first appears complex to the point of convoluted."

"Once you get your bearings, it moves like a thriller. An eccentric thriller, certainly, yet the rich layers of stagecraft and empathy in Morris’s beautifully bold production make Dr Semmelweis zing with acuity. A chorus of dancers interweaves with the action, as does the string quartet playing Adrian Sutton’s chamber music. The point is made, but not laboured, that no man is an island. Not even a maverick hero."

Dominic Maxwell, The Times
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"Mark Rylance is astonishing – again – in this unsettling, atmospheric drama about the downfall of a pioneering doctor"

"Rylance could play a stammering outsider physician in his sleep, but it’s the pitch into tragedy that he really gets his teeth into here. As the play wears on, Semmelweis’s homespun charm and serious-minded devotion to saving lives changes into something more disturbing; a raw, insatiable obsession that clots into incandescent rage with anyone who defies him or disbelieves him."

"The lead performance is more than enough to elevate Brown’s script, which is solid and poetic but leans into exposition and flashback too much, with an ending that gallops through the story a bit too quickly."

"... it’s Tom Morris’s virtuoso direction that ultimately defines the show, even more so than Rylance. In his production the actors are augmented by a grungy all-female string quartet, plus skirted dancers who whirl across the stage like carrion crows taking skittish flight."

Andrzej Lukowski, TimeOut
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The Evening Standard

"Mark Rylance is magnetic in urgent tale of scientific discovery"

"One of our finest actors is back where he belongs: onstage"

"Mark Rylance makes a galvanizing return to the London stage as the 19th century Hungarian surgeon whose work on antiseptics ultimately saved the lives of countless new mothers and newborns."

"Tom Morris’s urgent, pacy production juxtaposes disputative doctors with an all-female string quartet and a septet of ballerinas who give physical expression to joy, pain, mental anguish and death. The action seeps into the auditorium: we’re enlisted, or implicated."

"There are endless contemporary resonances for the doctors’ culture of denial. More interestingly, the script asks questions about truth and compromise. Semmelweis neglects his dying father and pregnant wife for the greater good, but his absolutism destroys him."

"The ending is rushed and clumsy but it doesn’t matter. One of our finest, alchemically instinctive actors is back where he belongs: onstage."

Nick Curtis, The Evening Standard
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The Financial Times

"The flashback structure can feel unwieldy, but Morris skilfully pulls against that, finding the moments of comedy while drawing you into the doctor’s tormented mind."

"It’s beautiful and sorrowful, and at its centre is Rylance, transfixing as a man hollowed out by grief and galvanised by guilt. His performance is mercurial — by turns gentle, diffident, impetuous and cruelly cold. There are deft interpretations from Daniel York Loh, Jude Owusu, Felix Hayes and Ewan Black as his exasperated associates, and from Pauline McLynn as an astute nurse who, as a woman, sees much but can say little."

Sarah Hemming, The Financial Times
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Daily Express

"A few too many bangs for your bucks"

"Dr Semmelweis is set in mid-19th Century Vienna and follows a Hungarian surgeon who discovers the reason behind the high number of post-partum fatalities."

"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."

"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."

Neil Norman, Daily Express
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The Telegraph

"Mark Rylance exposes the perils of groupthink"

"Playing a maverick doctor who discovers a ground-breaking cure, the star embodies crusading eccentricity – and dangerous monomania"

"Delayed by the pandemic, then first staged in Bristol in January 2022, while the UK was contending with the Omicron wave, Stephen Brown’s and Mark Rylance’s accomplished historical drama about a single-minded medic’s discovery of the value of washing hands in saving lives was at once assailed by circumstance and yet couldn’t have been timelier."

"While Rylance is a draw himself, my initial concern about this deserved West End transfer was that it might seem to offer unwanted remembrance of things past, Covid-fatigued as we are. But on second viewing, what ensures that the evening freshly grips is the resonant emphasis on the dangers of group-think and the way medical hierarchies can crush whistleblowers."

"One dramatic antecedent of the crusading Semmelweis is Dr Stockman in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People – a man battling against vested interests, pushed to breaking point, yet beset by character flaws, his tenacity bound up with testiness. This play isn’t finally in that league, but when this undersung doctor winds up in a straitjacket, we feel the injustice but also register the tragic inevitability."

Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph
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The Stage

"Stylish and highly stylised"

"Mark Rylance gives a fascinating, febrile performance in this unwieldy but absorbing historical drama"

"... the fact-based plot unfolds with the heightened emotional intensity and grim inevitability of tragedy, littered with avoidable deaths, coincidences and fatal misunderstandings. It is overwrought at times, packed with grand theatrical gestures that don’t quite cohere."

"Director Tom Morris gives the piece a busy, often frantic staging, which exhilaratingly spills out into the auditorium."

"As Semmelweis, Rylance holds the play’s disparate strands together with a performance of total conviction and deep empathy. The only member of the cast to affect a European accent, he delivers his lines in curt, clipped bursts, which accelerate when he is closer to a breakthrough, his words spilling out as a frantic babble."

Dave Fargnoli, The Stage
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The Independent

"A maverick turn from Mark Rylance"

"There’s the germ of a great production in this play about a pioneering 19th-century doctor who championed hand-washing"

"Here, with the help of a crack theatrical team including War Horse director Tom Morris and writer Stephen Brown, Rylance seeks to give the doctor his due, while also kicking up questions of the established vs the experimental, radicals vs the status quo."

"Sometimes Morris pulls all those elements together gloriously, especially in the moments where Semmelweis loses himself in the past and is suddenly tugged back to the present, while everything – dancers, musicians, ensemble – melts away imperceptibly."

"It looks spectacular, too... But there are strangely dull scenes, too, where an actor just gives… a not-very-interesting speech. That’s when you notice the thinness of the story, and you start to wonder why watching all these very talented people doing a lot of very clever things feels so unconvincing."

"Front and centre is Rylance. Although he keeps us riveted with an unexpectedly quiet line, or his bewildered, innocent eyes gleaming as Semmelweis makes his discoveries, his performance is stylistically very different from what the rest of the cast are doing."

Tim Bano, The Independent
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i News

"What on earth is Mark Rylance doing in this dull drama?"

"Fans of the actor will find their minds drifting back to better performances from him"

"How’s this for a grand theatrical paradox: there is no chance that Dr Semmelweis would have made the journey from the Bristol Old Vic to the West End without the towering central presence of Mark Rylance – and yet even with Rylance the show is not good enough. Fans eager for another dose of this mesmerising actor will find their minds inexorably drifting back to other, better performances from him. At a certain point in this grindingly repetitive production, I found myself idly thinking how very much I should like to see Rylance play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman."

"Morris talks in a programme note about the “highly collaborative and truly experimental” way in which this show was developed. The script, credited as “by Stephen Brown with Mark Rylance”, suffers from the lack of a single authorial rigour and focus. Rylance is one of this country’s very finest actors, but he should select his material more judiciously than this."

Fiona Mountford, i News
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"Mark Rylance’s Compelling Performance Outshines an Overworked Bio-Drama"

"All the elements are there: a forgotten but fascinatingly tragic, true-life story about a world-changing medical discovery that saved the lives of millions; a large-cast, grand-scale production including dancers and onstage musicians; and Mark Rylance on stage in a no-hold-barred performance. Yet despite remarkably fierce energy from everyone involved, most particularly Rylance, the bio-drama “Dr. Semmelweis” ultimately proves more enervating than exciting."

"There are vivid moments of discovery and, most especially, the striking collective gestures at the end of each act where idea, production and execution all fuse to dramatic effect. But too often, beneath Rylance’s work and the production pyrotechnics, there is too little to hold on to beyond the retelling of a story and the script’s self-conscious announcements about the resonance of its ideas. Important though they are, their lack of drama makes them wilt. Rylance, as ever, is magnetic, but even Morris’ production cannot disguise the fact that the actor has conceived a better role than a play."

David Benedict, Variety
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Daily Mail

"Rylance gives a compelling portrait of a stammering pioneer – he spews out words like the panicking Lance Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army"

"Tom Morris’s wildly inventive direction has dead mothers leaping about as dancing ghosts and an all-woman string quartet combining sinuous music with eerie choreography. This time around I found its flashback method over-complicated and the poetic writing needs minor surgery. But the play has a morbid beauty and an undertow of grieving sadness. Rylance fans can’t afford to miss it."

Robert Gore Langton, Daily Mail
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📷 Main photo: Dr Semmelweis. Photo by Simon Annand

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