On English Stages, Tales From the Asylum

LONDON — “Wash your hands! Wash your hands!” That plea has sounded the world over in recent years, and it lends a topical potency to “Dr. Semmelweis,” running through Feb. 19 at the Bristol Old Vic, a beautiful 18th-century playhouse in southwest England.

Its urgent speaker is the titular medic, a Hungarian-born doctor in 19th-century Vienna who pioneered antisepsis only to die in 1865, at age 47. It was left to subsequent physicians like Joseph Lister to pick up his work.

The play tells the time-honored tale of a man against the system, in this case a visionary whose desire to reverse a high mortality rate among young mothers comes up against a largely heedless establishment. Worthy of Ibsen andchronicled before in a Howard Sackler play that circled Broadway but never got there, Semmelweis’s story here emerges as a star vehicle for Mark Rylance. The much-laureled actor (three Tonys and an Oscar) co-wrote the play with Stephen Brown.

The director, Tom Morris, runs the venerable Bristol venue and has given Semmelweis’s too-short life a busy, bustling production that includes actors spilling from Ti Green’s turntable set into the auditorium on occasion, with musicians and dancers on hand to amplify the discordant emotions of the piece. The dancers, choreographed by Antonia Franceschi, give swirling physical expression to Semmelweis’s increasingly disordered mind and to the mothers who lost their lives to hygienic neglect. The Salomé string quartet weaves among the events, playing snatches of Schubert and lending a high-art sheen to some grave subject matter.

If all this sounds like a lot of embellishment, it’s fair to say that the first act in particular feels as if stage business is being used to disguise some fairly boilerplate writing. The play begins at the end, with Semmelweis in Hungary recalling, alongside his calm-seeming wife, Maria (Thalissa Teixeira), a climate of contamination in Vienna that did irreparable damage to the doctor’s psyche.

How can a vaunted “city of new ideas” not be more responsive to the investigations of a young maverick who comes upon the disinfectant potential of chlorine? This grocer’s son has determined that death rates at the world’s largest hospital — as Vienna General then was — are three times higher at the doctors’ clinic than at that of the midwives. “Cadaveric particles” are posited as the culprit, passed on by unclean hands from the autopsy room to the delivery ward and turning the hospital into a de facto slaughterhouse.

Rylance’s character in “Dr. Semmelweis” is, in time-honored fashion, a visionary whose desire to reverse a high mortality rate among young mothers comes up against a largely heedless establishment.Credit…Geraint Lewis

The locals aren’t having it. “Nuts by name, nuts by nature,” one of Semmelweis’s colleagues remarks dismissively, referring to this upstart’s first name, Ignaz. Never mind that the insult doesn’t make a whole lot of sense given that these people were probably not speaking English.

After the intermission, the baldfaced, expository nature of the writing continues. If Semmelweis is right, we’re told, “the entire future of medicine will be changed.” There’s a line, too, about the possible efficacy of bleach that draws thumping parallels to one of the more, um, peculiar proposals to defeat the current pandemic.

Through it all, Rylance is a springy physical presence. He brings a stammering restlessness to the role of a radical thinker whose thoughts at times outpace his words. You have to smile when this protean actor — acclaimed across TV and film, but devoted first and foremost to the stage — speaks in passing about “not wanting to waste time in the theater either,” and it’s nice to find among the supporting cast such fellow theater stalwarts as Alan Williams, in stern form as the obstetrician Johann Klein, Semmelweis’s nemesis.

More than anything, “Dr. Semmelweis” whets the appetite for Rylance’s return to the London stage in April, reprising his seismic performance in the Jez Butterworth play “Jerusalem,” first seen at the Royal Court in 2009. That same London address, an important one for new writing, is currently hosting an Alistair McDowall play, “The Glow,” that really is nuts, albeit intriguingly so.

The title character of “Dr. Semmelweiss” died unappreciated in an asylum, and McDowall’s time-traveling drama begins in one two years earlier, with a dimly lit figure fearfully inhabiting a windowless cell. That figure, a woman (Ria Zmitrowicz), is then glimpsed in any number of settings and centuries, ranging from the 1300s, in the company of a warriorlike personage (Tadhg Murphy) who might have wandered in from “Game of Thrones,” to 343 A.D. and forward to the 1970s and beyond.

From left, Ria Zmitrowicz and Rakie Ayola in “The Glow” at the Royal Court Theater in London.Credit…Manuel Harlan

What in heaven’s name is going on? You might ask McDowall the same of his 2016 play for the Royal Court, “X,” which was set on Pluto.

Shouty and apocalyptic only to turn rapturously poetic in its closing monologue, “The Glow” is best viewed as a sensory experience in which lighting and sound conjoin with the writer’s freewheeling imagination to summon up a lonely and difficult world that nonetheless allows for the warmth of the title. The intermission, only 40 minutes or so in, gives audiences ample time to ponder what they have seen.

The more literal theatergoer will be driven to distraction by the play’s apparently willful opacity, but that in itself tracks with the experimental bent of a theater defined in part by the playwright Caryl Churchill, whose own inquisitiveness and disregard for convention may have offered a beacon for McDowall.

For myself, I have to commend the full-throttle production of Vicky Featherstone, the Court’s artistic director, in tandem with a design team in which Jessica Hung Han Yun’s mercurial lighting reigns supreme. Fisayo Akinade and Rakie Ayola offer sterling support as more recognizable participants in a world to which Zmitrowicz’s initially mute woman has a hesitant relationship. Seen first as a spiritualist medium — yes, you read that right — Ayola also gets to display a lovely singing voice.

With the mysterious spectral figure at the play’s center, McDowall has offered a gift to Zmitrowicz, a fast-rising actress who has come to attention of late largely at the Almeida. Alternately sullen and feverish, indrawn yet eloquent, this performer rivets our attention throughout, even when the play she inhabits is ricocheting every which way around her.

Dr. Semmelweis. Directed by Tom Morris. Bristol Old Vic, through Feb. 19.

The Glow. Directed by Vicky Featherstone. Royal Court Theater, through March 5.

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