In the latest look at a show that should have opened this week but could not because of the coronavirus lockdown, Lyn Gardner speaks to Tom Morris, artistic director of Bristol Old Vic, about the world premiere of Semmelweis, starring Mark Rylance. She also looks at a significant show that opened this week in a previous year
The world premiere of a new play called Semmelweis, starring Mark Rylance, was due to play at Bristol Old Vic from June 13 to July 25, with a press night on June 19.
Several years ago, Rylance approached BOV’s artistic director Tom Morris with the idea of a play inspired by the life of Dr Semmelweis, an early 19th-century Hungarian doctor who, while working at Vienna’s General Hospital, noticed new mothers were less likely to die of puerperal fever (sepsis) in wards run by midwives than those run by doctors. The latter were moving around the hospital treating other patients and bringing the infection with them into the maternity wards.
“What he discovers,” says Morris, who was due to direct the play, “is that there is a very simple solution: hand-washing, which is, of course, weirdly resonant at the moment with the Covid-19 pandemic. He worked out what was happening through minute observation, but of course it was only years later that scientists made their discoveries about germs. So, he couldn’t explain to the authorities why his observations were true. Doctors who didn’t see why they should wash their hands were offended and the establishment turned against him.”
Morris says that “the conversations I’ve had with Mark over recent months have gone from ‘it’s so relevant’ to ‘maybe it’s too relevant’. I always notice when I’m working on something that the meaning of it shifts and accelerates depending on what is happening around it, and that’s been particularly true of Semmelweis.”
Who was involved?
“We were in the middle of auditioning when the shutdown happened,” says Morris, so there are no other confirmed actors besides Rylance. But the creative team was in place and included Stephen Brown, who was writing in collaboration with Rylance and Morris, and designer Ti Green.
Will you put it on at a later date?
“Yes, but I am constantly talking to Mark to try to work out exactly when. I’m not worried that the piece will lose any relevance, but I do know this is a production that would not play well to a socially distanced audience of 50. So, we will have to see. But I hope later in 2021.”
What is Morris doing during the shutdown?
“I’ve been thinking how we could do things differently. In my most optimistic moments, I think how change can come out of this disaster. But theatre needs help from government. The real danger point comes after the furlough scheme runs out and before theatres can fully reopen and audiences return.
“You could mothball a theatre like the Old Vic, but if we do that out of financial necessity, we can’t do any of our community and education work and it will be so much harder to refloat. But if we can get the government’s help to retain core staff then we can engage with the community, those who have been most disenfranchised, and be part of the economic recovery of the city and the country.”
If we can get the government’s help to retain core staff then we can engage with those who have been most disenfranchised
Morris has also been thinking hard about how the theatre might be able to reopen in the absence of a vaccine.
“We’ve got a vast foyer and we might be able to use that, and we are looking to how we might be able to open up the building at some point during the summer, and maybe do some things outside, in the street. Maybe on people’s doorsteps too. We can be creative. Theatre’s good at that.”
Further details, visit: bristololdvic.org.uk
A show that did open this week five years ago was Hang, which had a press night
at London’s Royal Court Upstairs on June 16 and ran until July 18. It was written and directed by Debbie Tucker Green, designed by Jon Bausor and the cast included Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Claire Rushbrook and Shane Zaza.
Set in the near future, Hang takes place in a government office where two civil servants are meeting a black woman – only known as Three – whose family has been the victim of an unspecified but heinous crime. The woman and her family have been left traumatised by their experience; they have waited a long time for justice. Now Three has to make a decision: how will the perpetrator be punished?
Tucker Green has always been the most formally experimental of playwrights and she uses language with a stiletto-like precision. Not a word is wasted in a play that explores the failures of language as civil servants offer cups of tea and platitudes and jargon. Through their inane solicitousness, they revictimise the woman. They tell her that they know how she feels, when they cannot possibly understand her trauma. The Stage’s review said that it was “as much about omission as it is about what is spoken. Every silence carries weight; what goes unsaid is as potent as what is voiced.”
Tucker Green is incapable of writing a play that doesn’t feel pertinent and previous dramas such as Stoning Mary and Truth and Reconciliation are part of a body of work that addresses justice, injustice, retribution and racial violence. In Hang, Three (the only character in the play whose skin colour is specified) speaks with a simmering, ferocious rage as she recounts the effects of the violence inflicted upon her and her family. It is truly a play for today as it exposes the traumas and legacy of colonialism and how those legacies remain embedded in the structures of Western political systems including how law is made and justice is administered.
If you want to know more about Tucker Green’s work, the Royal Court is currently providing free online access, via its website, of her wonderful 2018 play Ear for Eye. The Stage gave it a five-star review, declaring: “The subject is race, or rather what it is to be black today in the UK or the US: what it is to live with continuing racism, in a society built like a fortress for whites; what it is to carry the weight of a history of oppression, and of the seemingly endless, exhausting struggle to bring about change.”