Although he saved thousands of lives through his pioneering discoveries, the 19th-Century doctor Ignaz Semmelweiss remains virtually unknown outside scientific circles. That’s all about to change.

An audible excitement was bubbling around the atmospheric foyer of Bristol Old Vic ahead of the world premiere of Dr Semmelweiss. The much-anticipated performance was star Mark Rylance’s Bristol Old Vic debut, unusual for such a lauded actor, internationally known for his long association with Shakespeare’s Globe, and his award-winning performances in London’s West End, on Broadway and on screen.

The cast of Dr Semmelweiss on stage at Bristol Old Vic theatre

Image - Mark Rylance and the cast of Dr Semmelweiss on stage at Bristol Old Vic (Credit Geraint Lewis)

Dr Semmelweiss is based on an original idea from Mark Rylance (Don’t Look UpWolf HallBridge of Spies), developed with writer Stephen Brown (Occupational Hazards) and Director Tom Morris (War HorseTouching the Void). Originally written in 2015, this production feels as up to date and relevant in 2022 as the mid-1800s in which it is set.

The big question: What does it take to change the world?

Confronted by the terrible death toll of childbed fever in 19th century Vienna, maverick Doctor Semmelweis makes a discovery that could save hundreds of thousands of new mothers. But when the medical establishment questions his methods, rejects his theory, and doubts his sanity, the controversial surgeon finds that being a pioneer is not enough. 

Years later, he is haunted by the ghosts of the women he failed to save. Is it too late to convince the medical establishment to see the truth? And if he tries what will be the cost?

Mark Rylance starring as Dr Semmelweiss on stage at Bristol Old Vic theatre

Image - Mark Rylance as Dr Semmelweiss (Credit Geraint Lewis)

The excited audience were right to be so. Rylance gives an award-winning performance in the title role, ably assisted by a superbly talented supporting cast. The winning touch of Bristol Old Vic’s Artistic Director Tom Morris was evident throughout, getting deep inside the character and pulling every emotional string of the audience whilst seamlessly shifting backwards and forwards through the doctor’s life. Simple yet brilliant set design and a razor-sharp script ensure the audience are captivated throughout, immersed completely in one man’s struggle with the suffering of so many.

Dr Semmelweiss is a story of the battle of knowing you are right against an onslaught of gaslighting and denial from those with an ulterior motive that may be embarrassed by the truth - but it is so much more than that. It asks questions around mental health, around science, sexism, and personal responsibility and about how brilliance and weakness can be different sides of the same coin. As Tom Morris mentions in his programme notes, “It is both the story of a wild outsider battling against his world, and a reflection on what seems to me to be the greatest need in our society now: to balance incisive vision with patience, kindness and the capacity to listen”.

This show was written to be performed at the Bristol Old Vic, but it will surely tour. And you should get a ticket, wherever, whenever, and however you can.

Thalissa Teixeira in the production Dr Semmelweiss on stage at Bristol Old Vic theatre

Image - Thalissa Teixeira as Maria Semmelweiss at Bristol Old Vic (Credit Geraint Lewis)

Dr Semmelweis at Bristol Old Vic runs from 26 January until 19 February 2022 and has Socially DistancedSignedCaptioned and Audio Described performances.

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Dr Semmelweis at Bristol Old Vic
Theatre
Dr Semmelweis at Bristol Old Vic

What does it take to change the world?

Bristol Old Vic Theatre
Theatre
Bristol Old Vic Theatre exterior

Built in 1766, Bristol Old Vic is the oldest continuously working theatre in the English speaking world, and remains a place of joy, discovery and adventure to this day.