IRISH actor Pauline McLynn is starring in Dr Semmelweis at the Harold Pinter Theatre, her first ‘proper’ West End show.
The play tells the story of one medicine’s greatest pioneers, maverick Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis.
Dr Semmelweis was determined to discover what caused many women to die during childbirth in the mid-19th century and went on to pioneer the use of antiseptic handwash by the clinicians delivering the babies.
However, he struggled to get the medical community to believe his findings and was left distraught by thoughts of the many women who died as a result of his work being ignored.
The production, which was originally developed by the National Theatre Studio and first staged by Bristol Old Vic, will see the celebrated actor Mark Rylance returning to the stage in the title role.
McLynn McLynn will play Anna Müller, the nurse who can see the truth in Dr Semmelweis’ findings, where his medical peers cannot.
She told The Irish Post why the play it’s the ‘greatest thriller you never knew about’ and one you won’t forget in a hurry…
Dr Semmelweis is a new play, what can you tell us about it?
This is the story of a forgotten (and neglected) genius whose life-changing discoveries have saved millions of lives since he lived.
He never got the recognition he deserved in his lifetime but hopefully now people can learn about him and appreciate his flawed magnificence.
The whole story is like the greatest thriller you never knew about…until now.
How would you describe your character Anna Müller, and how central is she to the plot?
Anna is a fictional nurse in the story. I guess she represents all the midwives who helped along the way. She is a no-nonsense woman, a good nurse and a tremendous ally for Semmelweis in our story.
What drove you take on this role and how have you prepared for it?
The director, Tom Morris, is one of the people I have longed to work with and of course when I saw the great Mark Rylance was not only co-writer of the piece but also taking on the role of Dr Semmelweis I nearly didn’t have to read it to decide.
Of course, I did read it and realised it is not just a huge story but a fantastic night of theatre and that open door was ready for me to walk through.
As far as preparation for any theatre project goes, I tend to do the work in the rehearsal room. I don’t like to arrive with preconceived notions, it’s all to be discovered in the doing (for me anyhow).
The production is transferring from the Bristol Old Vic, did you get a chance to see it there?
No, I didn’t see the Bristol show and I’m glad about that because I come to it with new ideas and I hope that adds an extra something or other for all involved.
The story is based on real-life events, and a transformative medical breakthrough – were you previously aware of Dr Semmelweis’s work?
I was completely ignorant of Dr Semmelweis until now – I think that’s going to be the case for most of the audiences over our run.
And, like me, they’ll be thinking how did I never know this amazing story?
Is there a message in this play? If so, how does that resonate with a modern audience?
Tough question. I’m not really one for saying what the message or theme of any play is as I think the audience decides that for itself.
What is apparent, though, is that some of the problems our modern health services face are remarkably similar to those in Semmelweis’s day. The struggle continues.
Does the historical context and true-life basis add any extra pressure when playing your role?
Oh yes. We all want to do justice to the historical story and characters, warts and all.
To be honest I think it adds an extra layer of resonance for the audience to know these were real people and their situation is a familiar one, even today.
You have a lengthy career on stage and screen, where does this production lie in the work you have done to date – is it a highlight?
Every actor hopes each show they do is building on all the rest that came before.
A late, great colleague used to declare ‘onwards’ as the only way and I echo that.
Do you prefer stage or screen work?
I’ve never understood actors saying they’ll just stick to one genre – for one thing, how do they pay their bills?
It’s a job (and a great one) and that means working wherever and whenever you can.
I have no preferences, just hope that the work will be interesting and good and that I don’t waste people’s time.
The show opens next month - do you get nerves before going on stage?
This is my first show in the West End proper, so I am incredibly nervous about it.
Mind you, I am never not nervous about any job.
However, I am surrounded by a brilliant company of creatives and we all have each other’s backs so it’s a great place to be.
Are you still based in Ireland?
I go wherever the work is so I can truthfully say I’m based wherever the show is. Right now, that’s London.
Will any of your Irish family or friends be over to see the production?
I have plenty of family and friends here and they’ll all be along to see Dr Semmelweis.
I imagine a few of the Ireland-based branches of the clan will make the journey over too.
For those coming to see Dr Semmelweis, what can they expect from it?
This will be a rollercoaster ride for any audience.
They will be delighted, they’ll be moved, they’ll revel in the story and the beauty of the production. And they certainly won’t forget this one in a hurry.
Directed by Tom Morris and co-written by Stephen Brown and Mark Rylance, Dr Semmelweis opens at the Harold Pinter Theatre next month. It runs from July 11 until October 7. For tickets click here.