Harold Pinter Theatre, London, until Oct 7
It’s frustrating to see an intelligent, thoughtful play with a great actor like Mark Rylance, that’s briskly directed by Tom Morris, well scripted by Stephen Brown and with a fine set and costume design by Ti Green and still somehow manage to find it all unutterably boring.
Dr Semmelweis tells how its titular character, working in a hospital in Vienna in 1847, figured out that it would be a good thing for doctors to sanitise their hands is not just worthy, but suffocatingly worthy. I fancy Rylance, as the good doctor, saw it as a challenge: if he can make a play like this come alive, he can make literally anything come alive.
Rylance is fidgety, neurotic, anxious, eyes darting all over the place and not relaxing for one moment, but, alas, while he throws just about everything he has at his character and then some, even he can’t pull it off. There is strong support from, among others, Amanda Wilkin as his long-suffering wife, and Pauline McLynn as a midwife who makes a predictably fatal mistake.
Maybe plays, like some of the patients in Dr Semmelweis’s hospital, are destined to die on the operating table because of a basic early misapprehension. That’s to say no amount of fine writing and great acting is going to make a play work when the original idea is just not a very good one.