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Dr Semmelweis

Harold Pinter Theatre

Panton Street, London SW1Y 4DN 0333 009 6690

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  • Synopsis
  • Theatremonkey show opinion
  • Reader reviews
  • Performance schedule
  • Ticket prices


Ends 7th October 2023

Vienna. A doctor realises he can prevent deaths of both mother and baby in childbirth. How can he convince a sceptical 19th century European medical establishment?

Mark Rylance plays the Hungarian doctor.


(seen at the afternoon performance on 27th July 2023)

As many regular theatregoers find, chatting with the person next to them leads to many an interesting conversation. At “Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” the monkey encountered a microbiologist who regarded Dr Semmelweis as their hero. Now it understands why.

Mark Rylance and Stephen Brown celebrate a man who, in 1874, made the final links in work Alexander Gordon had begun around a hundred years earlier between hospital hygiene and the survival of patients. If not for realising “dead organic matter” and “that smell” meant something (“bacteria” were only defined years later) and that what is on the hand, the scalpel, the sheets could kill... it is highly likely most reading this and seeing the play would not be here.

So, a great story, but Tom Morris’s production arrives, with the best possible intentions, grossly over-staged.

Seizing on the Vienna setting, everybody opts for the easy option of “high culture” and formality. Ti Green goes for a sweeping metal two-teir wrought metal set, doorways, beds and chairs rolling on and off and artistic shifts or regulation expensive suits for all through Richard Howell's mostly stygian lighting.

The expectant mothers are professional ballet dancers under choreographer Antonia Franceschi, with some also violinists delivering on-stage, aisle and boxes (Morris can’t keep them in one place) accompaniment and commentary. The sawing chords and dischords (Adrian Sutton) are sometimes appropriate. The dancing and upstage movement is, for the most part, an irritating distraction.

A simple and brilliant tale loses focus stretched by both this and several unnecessary scenes at both the beginning and end. Judicious reduction in the numbers on stage and the script itself could have served the material to far greater effect.

Rylance himself is at the very top of his form. His Semmelweis is passionate about his cause, eccentric to the point of unworldly – unable to distinguish between acting and reality yet creating intuitively strategies from which to make amazingly important deductions.

Introducing him over chess with wife Maria (Amanda Wilkin) is ingenious. Trouble is, Wilkin is then somewhat redundant, another person hovering around for no real reason until allowed to speak the epilogue after drawn-out final scenes which required no dramatization and felt under-written additions to the preceding events.

Final duty should have fallen to dedicated nurse Anna Muller. Pauline McLynn portrays movingly three decades of service and the emotional toll it takes to suffer infant and mother mortality and the chauvinism of the medical profession.

Leader of the hospital Dr Klein has Alan Williams striding around obsessed with hospital politics – his new windows depend on it – and displaying an ignorance which kills. Against him, Semmelweis’s nicely drawn colleagues do well to resist.

As a commentary on the current state of those who govern our National Health Service, little has changed in governance or hierarchy. Rather like the NHS, this play is also a structure requiring reform to become fully effective.

As with his epic failure that was “The Meaning of Zong” at the Barbican Theatre earlier this year, Tom Morris proves that being a director of grand vision is not the same as being one who can bring such sweeping themes and concepts to the stage while maintaining scale. Here, detail and depth of emotion alas drown rather than float in his visual environment.

There is also an interesting point to be made that unsuccessful joining of art to portray science demonstrates why the current government sees them as mutually exclusive in school and society at large “Ballerinas to the back”. Yet without this play, the monkey would have learned nothing about an incalculably great man’s gift to the world.

Too many slices of "Sachertorte" to be instantly digestible, but important to see anyway, for both story and another Rylance triumph of performance. A revised revival with a more modest directorial vision would be welcome.

Dr Semmelweis

Amazing performances from the cast, dancers and on-stage musicians. Spellbinding performance from Mark Rylance. Thoughtful, funny and moving.

Legacy reader reviews

2 bananas

Don't get me wrong. I think the play is good but the production wasn't. Mark Rylance gave a brilliant performance as Dr Semmelweis but I didn't like the dancing of the dead mothers all the time. And the music including the cello and the violins was very distacting. Sometimes you couldn't understand Rylance or the other actors as the violin was way louder. 

I hope this might be revived in some years but without the horrible music and dancing. 

The monkey advises checking performance times on your tickets and that performances are happening as scheduled, before travelling.

Monday to Saturday at 7.30pm
Thursday and Saturday at 2.30pm and 7.30pm

Runs 2 hours 30 minutes approximately.


Theatres use "dynamic pricing." Seat prices change according to demand for a particular performance. Prices below were compiled as booking originally opened. Current prices are advised at time of enquiry.

Harold Pinter Theatre price seating plan

BOX OFFICE: Day seats available to personal callers from 10am (12 noon Bank Holidays) each day, price £15 each. Number and location are at box office discretion.

DOCTOR'S WAITING ROOM: Visit each Wednesday at 10am for all performances for the following week.
First come, first served, the first in line can buy up to 2 tickets for their chosen performance the following week, for £10 each. Tickets will be allocated on a "best available" basis. They will be standing places. If there are seats available when tickets are collected 90 minutes before the performance then you may be allocated a seat anywhere in the auditorium - including restricted view tickets. Couples may be allocated single tickets in different locations.
You must be willing and able to stand throughout the performance, and willing to accept being seated apart from the other member of your party, if you enter this process and are allocated tickets.

FRIDAY RUSH: Every Friday at 1pm, a number of £10 seats are released online and by phone for the following week's performances via the National Theatre's website

RUSH TICKETS: App Todaytix are offering £25 "Rush tickets," located at venue discretion, for all performances. Released for the performance on that day, first-come, first-served. Download the App from Todaytix.  

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