Bristol Old Vic’s production of Doctor Semmelweis starring Mark Rylance, which was due to begin rehearsals this week, has been postponed following the COVID-19 outbreak, but the story is too topical to cancel, says artistic director Tom Morris. New dates will be announced when circumstances permit.
The play charts the troubled genius’ battle with the medical establishment after he discovers the life-saving benefits of handwashing in the Vienna General Hospital in 1847. But the establishment scoffed at the idea that doctors were infecting their patients with unwashed hands. Fighting for his theories at a time when those in power couldn’t see the science, and haunted by the weight of the lives he could have saved, Semmelweis himself died of sepsis in an asylum for the insane in 1865. His discoveries were largely ignored, his achievements uncelebrated and his death unnoticed.
Plans for the play had been discussed way before the tragic events of COVID-19. Now, in the light of the pandemic, Dr Ignaz Semmelweis is gaining worldwide recognition, and the story of his pioneering discoveries is more topical than ever.
Current bookers for the world premiere of Doctor Semmelweis are invited to hold their bookings to guarantee seats when the show is rescheduled, while Morris and Rylance work on a safe way and a secure timetable to deliver this extraordinary story.
Mark Rylance said:
“I am very sad not to be rehearsing this resonant play for our scheduled opening this summer. I was particularly looking forward also to living and playing in Bristol. I have always enjoyed being in the audience at the beautiful Bristol Old Vic and spent many enjoyable days and nights in Bristol while filming Wolf Hall or visiting friends.
“I hope that we as a society will one day soon feel safe to gather again in theatres and share these moving, amusing and sometimes tragic stories in the same room together. How I miss it! Technology is a marvellous thing, but how much greater the human spirit and imagination is when gathered together in a group sharing something at the same time in the same place, be it sports, good food, music, or a great play.
“Tom and I are standing by the door waiting for the day we can share this extraordinary story of a great hero of medicine with you. It will be one of the many ways we will thank and honour our health workers on the frontline today.”
Doctor Semmelweis was scheduled as the centrepiece in Bristol Old Vic’s 2020 programme, Year of Artists, exploring and celebrating the role of creativity in society. This celebration is as important and powerful as ever, as our society struggles under the burden of lockdown, and the theatre is continuing the enquiry in its online programme.
Tom Morris said: “The Bristol Old Vic At Home online platform, which launched on 16 April, represents our wide and complementary strands of work; from engaging with young people and families, supporting creativity in all its forms across Bristol and finding ways to continue to entertain the city with online productions. In this small way, we hope to support our city and wider community however we can until we can welcome everyone back into the theatre.”
Today’s postponement sits alongside the rolling postponement of Bristol Old Vic’s Summer Programme. The theatre’s policy is to reschedule as many of the postponed shows as possible, contacting audiences as schedules are rebuilt and giving them the options of a refund, a transfer to the new dates, credit note against another show, or a donation to the theatre. Like all businesses in the country that have been devastated by the pandemic and the lockdown, Bristol Old Vic’s position as a theatre is especially vulnerable. The theatre is, therefore, building towards a Reopening Fund to ensure that it can bounce back stronger than ever.
“We are greatly humbled by the way in which our audiences have come together to support us at this time. It is vitally important as it means we can continue to financially support our artists and the freelancers we work with and ensures we can return fighting-fit once this crisis has passed. I want to express our sincere and immense gratitude, as well as our determination to continue to develop ways to support and connect with our community and tell the stories that matter to this wonderful city during this time.”
#MarkRylance says he & @BristolOldVic AD @tommozzer ‘are standing by the door waiting for the day we can share this extraordinary story of a great hero of medicine with you. It will be one of the many ways we will thank & honour our health workers on the frontline today’ https://t.co/ytGP042J8Q
— Terri Paddock (@TerriPaddock) May 6, 2020