Theatre review – Dr Semmelweis

Mark Rylance (Dr Semmelweis) and the Mothers. Photo by Geraint Lewis

Imagine a world where the existence of germs was still unknown and hand-washing was considered a burden? Imagine being the person who makes the connection between unclean hands and patient deaths, and tries to convince the medical profession that soap and water could save lives?

Stemming from an idea by Mark Rylance from the true story of Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor working in Vienna in the 19th Century, the play has been developed by playwright Stephen Brown, director Tom Morris and the company at Bristol Old Vic have created a show of drama, peril and human heartbreak. With a pared-back split-level set that makes the most of a rotating floor and transforms with artful lighting design by Richard Howell, we’re inserted into a world where women could expect to lose their lives to childbed fever soon after giving birth.

DR_SEMMELWEIS_company. Photo by Geraint Lewis

Dr Semmelweis, played with an extraordinary range and depth of emotions by Mark Rylance (Wolf Hall, The BFG), wants to know why the women directed to the midwives’ ward are so much less likely to die that those taken to the doctors’ ward. We watch him make leaps in understanding with our hearts in our mouths, all while the ensemble of ‘mothers’ die, dance and writhe around him. The eeriness is present throughout, keeping the 19th Century awareness of mortality close. The musicians, dressed as ‘mothers’ and employing all the uncanny spinetingling spookiness provided by strings, contribute to this mood.

Choreography by Antonia Franceschi and sound design by Jon Nicholls serve to keep the audience tautly in tune with the troubled doctor as he fights to save more women joining the ghosts who haunt him.

 Mark-Rylance-and-Clemmie-Sveaas-DR.SEMMELWEIS.-Photo-by-Geraint-Lewis.

Mark Rylance and Clemmie-Sveaas with the ‘mothers’.

Yet there are smatterings of humour too – we open on a scene of Dr Semmelweis playing chess with his pregnant wife Maria (Thalissa Teixeira), a scene that shows off his wit and sharpness with dizzying swiftness. Interactions with his colleagues and friends (Felix Hayes, Sandy Grierson, Daniel York Loh), also bring some light relief. Nurse Anna Muller, played with brilliant forthrightness and feeling by Jackie Clune, while earnest Franz Arneth (Enyl Okoronkwo) and doubter Johann Klein (Alan Williams) provided opposing energies for Rylance to shine against.

Towards the end, it’s Thalissa Teixeira as Maria who won much of my focus, as she struggles to keep her husband from insanity as the medical profession turned their back on him despite the evidence.

Thalissa Teixeira and company of Dr Semmelweis. Photo by Geraint Lewis

In the end, it’s Maria who has the final word, standing centre stage and reminding us of how grateful we should be to Dr Semmelweis today. Teixeira shows such compassion throughout that through her character’s eyes we can see the vulnerability and humanity in the sometimes difficult and occasionally cruel genius of Semmelweis.

It’s a powerful powerful slice of medical history that feels particularly on point in a time when we’ve been continually urged to wash our hands to save lives. Add to that the beauty of the staging and direction alongside Rylance’s exquisitely nuanced performance and you have a challenging truth gift-wrapped in artistry that makes this a fully sensory experience.

Photos by Geraint Lewis.

Dr Semmelweis is on at Bristol Old Vic until at 12 February 2022. Find out more and get your tickets.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley (at) iCloud.com. Likewise, if you’ve published or produced something you’d like me to review, please get in touch.

Novella review – The Listening Project by Ali McGrane

The Listening Project book coverBook Balm recommendation: Read to sink into a symphony of sensations.

The opening story of Ali McGrane’s novella-in-flash The Listening Project, Arnie’s Bear offers a cascade of impressions, textures and churning emotions buried deep. It’s a clear indication of the treasures, and pleasures, in store from this beautiful debut, and the mastery at work. At less than a page in length, this concise flash has the depth of a novel-length exploration of the bewilderment of loss from the viewpoint of a child, Imogen.

This is the start of a journey of more than forty years, beginning when Imogen is seven, and her brother Arnie is nineteen – the age at which he becomes fixed by death. Each story is labelled with the year it is set, starting in 1976, and rippling through to 2019, with Imogen asking questions and seeking truths while finding her way through a world with the volume gradually being turned right down. In Life Lessons, McGrane writes: “She’s learned to lip-read, alert to clues, running parallel possibilities, backtracking, re-routing, bridging chasms.”

McGrane engages all our senses in her storytelling, so that your skin tingles and your lungs contract in rhythm with the protagonist’s. In Seedlings, we join Imogen in planting sweet peas, anticipating the scent and tenderly separating tangled roots as she remembers her brother through the colour green: “A darker green jacket with a hood. Green sea-glass ranged along his window sill. (…) Were there green flecks in his eyes?”

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Poetry review – The Country With No Playgrounds by Elena Croitoru

The Country With No Playgrounds by Elena Croitoru coverBook Balm recommendation: Read to have your empathy heightened and awareness deepened.

In her debut poetry pamphlet The Country With No Playgrounds, award-winning British-Romanian poet Elena Croitoru has captured a place and period in time so precisely and skilfully that you’ll find yourself transported.

Stark scenes are highlighted with words that seem fondly chosen for their beauty: “We grew up in our spare time,/ beyond a tower block island/ where pearly cement dust lay…”

Relayed with disarming matter-of-factness, many of the poems are almost cinematic, such as in The Last Wedding: “She looked out of the window/ at the militiamen who watched our balcony/ from below, the way one would watch/ the funeral of someone still moving.”

It’s heart-stoppingly alarming, yet clearly for the inhabitants utterly normal, to live with such a palpable threat. As worrying as the situation must have been for the adults she mentions, for the children Croitoru counted herself among, this was nothing more than ordinary. This gives her the tools to describe moments with a lightness of touch that draws us in rather than pushing us away, so that we read each stanza with wide open eyes.

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Poetry review – We Have to Leave the Earth by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

We Have to Leave the Earth by Carolyn Jess-Cooke book coverBook Balm recommendation: Read to immerse yourself in wonder.

The contents page of Carolyn Jess-Cooke‘s third collection offers a clear indication of the skill at play here. Poem titles are mini-masterworks, with each offering sense of perilous climatic times we live in couple with an awe for the world we inhabit.

Section 1, Songs for the Arctic, illuminates scenes by scattering words across the whiteness of the page. in We Flicker too briefly, you can roll the flavour of the lines over your tongue: “Bone sky./Ocean’s oil-dark/cloth unsettled” and “green sky-rivers/ arrows of geese/ water scythes of whales.”

Section 2 opens with the title poem, which sets the tone for a sequence about beauty and strength in fragility. In Birdsong for a Breakdown, we’re introduced to the extremity of sensations experienced through the rawness of mental ill-health: “Because sweetness amidst such unnameable dark/ is magnesium, too bright to miss.”

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Novella review – The Death and Life of Mrs Parker by Jupiter Jones

The Death and Life of Mrs Parker cover. Shows a guppy with an extravagant tail swimming against a black background.

Book Balm recommendation: read for stalwart cheerfulness in the face of adversity.

Spoiler alert, this wry, tragi-comic novella opens with the apparent lethal poisoning of the main character, but for the dauntless Aveline Parker, these moments are far from the end. While her heart races towards the finish line, memories flood in and we’re treated to chapters from decades filled with love and misadventure. When the paramedics tell her that she seems to have a problem with her heart, she comments inwardly: “I’ve always had problems with my heart, giving it away, getting it broken”, and proceeds to think through the medical attributes of the human heart, ending with: “The heart is fickle.”

Aveline’s voice rings with authenticity as she relays anecdotes that weave threads of excitement into knots of heartbreaking regret, each edging us closer to the paramedics working to keep her alive on a restaurant floor. The originality of the story and its telling is anchored in this voice, the skilful use of colourful clichés (such as when Aveline observes that the lines around an elderly woman’s mouth contract “like a cat’s arse”) that suit the character so well and the rich textural details that pin each recollection in place.

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Poetry review – Much with body by Polly Atkin

Much With Body book cover. Shows figure floating in green water.Book Balm recommendation: Read to remind yourself to pause and pay attention to your natural surroundings.

From frogs and toads ambling into her home to the herons glimpsed nearby to the imposed quieter times of lockdown, Much with body by Polly Atkin is a reminder to take a breath, open your eyes and observe.

In Lakeclean, Atkin immerses us in the magic of wild swimming. The lines are dizzyingly visual and elemental, while hinting at the freedom and physical relief offered fleetingly in water, as opposed to time spent on land. Atkin alludes to the joy of  being: “released from the tyranny of gravity”, dwelling “in transparency”, and sweeping “mountains aside with our arms without wincing.”

Notes from a transect offers series of determinedly hopeful snippets, each of which works as a standalone poem. In What’s Under Your Feet she records: “One school wins a visit from a scientist. When she asks/ does anyone have wildlife stories to share?/ the whole school put up their hands.” In Windows we glimpse “Those lightless days when pain/ keeps you in, under, and the feeder/ at the window is the only source of movement/ you count birds.”

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Theatre review – Robin Hood: Legend of the Forgotten Forest

Dorian Simpson (JJ), Tom England (Will Scarlet) Pic Craig Fuller Seeking a festive show with love, laughter and unexpected poignancy? Attending Bristol Old Vic’s Christmas show is a firm festive tradition for many families, and 2021’s offering meets and surpasses all expectation. In collaboration with the Wardrobe Ensemble, this retelling of Robin Hood is as imaginative and visually spectacular as you’d expect. In the hands of directors Tom Brennan and Helena Middleton, the production also unexpectedly moving in a way that ensures it lingers.

We open with twelve-year-old school boy JJ (played brilliantly by Dorian Simpson, who succeeded in making me forget his six-foot+ frame so that at times I was truly concerned for the little child’s safety). JJ is a die-hard fan of Robin Hood and, as mentioned in a passing comment, of Oceans Eleven. When he opens a mysterious handwritten book about his favourite folk-hero, he is magically transported back in time to the 13th century.

What follows is a glorious mash-up of medieval adventure and Hollywood heist. If you’ve seen any of the Wardrobe’s previous film re-imaginings, you’ll be unsurprised by how beautifully this works.

Robin’s Merry Crew have long since disbanded due to a tragedy no one wants to talk about. That leaves JJ with the task of getting the gang back together, which requires family man Will Scarlet (a witty and urbane Tom England), a really angry Maid Marion (the convincingly lethal Katya Quist), and drunken, gambling Friar Tuck (embodied by Jesse Meadows with fabulous comic aplomb).

Jesse Meadows as Friar Tuck.

Jesse Meadows as Friar Tuck.

But the first task is to convince Robin Hood that she actually wants to step back into the role of hero.

Bristol Old Vic and the Wardrobe Ensemble are never too concerned about sticking to gender norms, and in this case , Kerry Lovell is the perfect casting for the troubled ex-outlaw as she unwillingly reunites with her former friends under JJ’s ebullient insistence and absolute belief.

Kerry Lovell (Robin) and Dorian Simpson (JJ), Pic Craig Fuller

Kerry Lovell as Robin and Dorian Simpson as JJ

JJ’s determination that they should all wear bright green tights adds to the visual humour (not least at Meadows Friar Tuck somehow manages to tuck her robes into hers, creating the portly figure earlier incarnations have presented.

The Sheriff of Nottingham is on the brink of celebrating his 29th birthday for at least the second year, while fleecing his subjects of every hard-earn penny. With a page-boy wig that keeps his evil persona comic rather than terrifying, actor James Newton expertly crafts a spoilt but deadly rich boy who craves love but only knows how to inspire ridicule and fear.

James Newton as The Sheriff with the company. Pic Craig Fuller

James Newton as The Sheriff with the company.

There are nods to the film productions JJ and much of the audience grew up with, as well as more modern movie and TV references, not least a sing-off and a dance-off. Look out for Will Scarlet ascending from above the stage in a lime-green body suit, plenty of sword-fighting from Robin and the Sheriff, and some exceptional slow motion running from the full Merry Crew. There’s also an outstanding kiss that will make you want to cheer.

Original compositions from Tom Crosley-Thorne alongside some familiar tunes had the audience clapping along, and there was a sense of being part of the story throughout.

This is a hugely enjoyable theatrical extravaganza crammed with jokes, drama and a few tears as well as a strong message about friendship and self-forgiveness. Exactly what’s needed on a dark winter’s day.

Photos by Craig Fuller.

Robin Hood: Legend of the Forgotten Forest is on at Bristol Old Vic until at 8 Jan 2022. There are specific socially-distanced performances, signed, captioned, relaxed and audio described performances during the run. Find out more and get your tickets.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley (at) iCloud.com. Likewise, if you’ve published or produced something you’d like me to review, please get in touch.

Novella review – Small Things by Hannah Sutherland

Small Things book cover.Book Balm recommendation: read when you want to taste the bitter-sweetness of love entwined with loss.

Despite its title, Hannah Sutherland’s novella is all about the biggest things in life: friendship, true love, family and loss. Meet Jude, eighteen years old, and as drunk as his dad, Paddy is notorious for being. Now meet Madeline, the young woman who will one day become Jude’s mum. Slip-sliding deftly back and forth through time, each chapter presents a different moment from the lives of four people: Madeline, Paddy, Jude’s beloved best friend Kit and Jude himself, the glow at the centre that the other three orbit around.

There’s so much hope, affection and heartbreak woven into these strung-together stories that at times it’s almost hard to bear. Vulnerability is vividly drawn, not least in The character assassination, a goosebump-inducing account of a parents’ evening in which Jude observes as “Mammy raises her chin and puts on a façade of confidence, seemingly unbothered, which Jude knows will tire her to bed for the next few days.”

This is also our first meeting with Kit, and subtly indicates what these two boys will mean to one another.

Sutherland has a knack for seeding in truths you’ll understand without needing them spelled out, and barely aware of the clues you’ve absorbed until they accumulate and you feel as though you’ve always known.

We, Kit and Jude, invincible captures the exquisite verve and naivety of youth: “We cycle for hours, doing everything and nothing. We build a den in your garden (…) Place your beloved tartan blanket over the top, a temporary sky for us to gaze up at.”

You is a gorgeously tender chapter, written with sparkling honesty from Kit to Jude. “You walk up to me and there’s something inside me, like a butterfly, or a bursting burn, a volcano on the brink, fluttering, rumbling…”

This method of writing directly from the heart of one character to another places us directly at the hub both of action and contemplation. It makes us privy to much that is left unspoken, which gives us an omnipotent view that I found made me care deeply for the key players.

The yearning to and impossibility of protecting those we care for from all harm shines throughout too, heightening the potency of the varieties of love encompassed here. At times you may want to pause to fully absorb the emotions rising from these pages.

Challenging topics pattern scenes like wallpaper, often visible on the peripheral without demanding your full attention. Madeline’s mental illness and grief for her “halfway babies” is explored gently through both Madeline and Jude, as well as bonding Jude to Kit, who has his own “halfway sister.” This shared understanding of what’s it’s like to be framed in the light of those lost is written with startling surety, delivered alongside the understated but distressing revelation of the threats Kit faces at home, with the “bruises on his wrist. choking it like an ugly beaded bracelet.”

Many of the titles speak volumes by themselves. Examples include Losing your virginity, yourself and your preferences.

Paddy’s love for Madeline draws a ‘before and after’ line diagonally through this complex and rich novella, evoking empathy in his less dignified moments.

But it’s the purity of Jude’s feelings for Kit that will stay with you, longing for the innocence of a childhood garden den with a tartan blanket keeping all the world’s dangers firmly at bay.

Small Things by Hannah Sutherland is published by AdHoc FictionBuy your copy.

This book was given to me in exchange for a fair review.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley (at) iCloud.com. Likewise, if you’ve published or produced something you’d like me to review, please get in touch.

Novella review – Crossing the Lines by Amanda Huggins

Book Balm recommendation: read when you need reminding that every person you meet has their own story.Crossing-the-Lines-by Amanda Huggins cover
Reading almost like a novella in flash and expanding outwards from her Costa Award shortlisted tale Red, Amanda Huggins’ latest creation is a tensely told yet heart-affirming work. The focus is fifteen-year-old Mollie, seemingly trapped in a nightmarish situation until she finds the courage to escape with stray dog Hal.

The friendship between Mollie and Hal is a steel thread through the story, offering solace and strength in the face of disappointments, betrayals and the occasional kindness. This is a journey full of perils and adventure, with happy as well as sour memories trailing behind and the hope of a safe return to what was once home ahead.

When Mollie’s mum Ellie meets Sherman Rook, it’s clear almost at once that he’s no good. “Something in his eyes glittered hard and bright as he appraised her cloud of unruly blonde hair, the jut of her determined chin and her long tanned legs.”

Before the chapter’s end Ellie and Mollie are moving to live with Sherman far from everyone they know. The sense of danger is palpable.

It contrasts sharply with the coastal life Mollie loves, close to her brother Angel and father. The close yet roaming third-person narrative allows chapters to read like flash fictions, with some focused on Ellie and opening up insights into her behaviour, while others share aspects of people Mollie meets only briefly, providing an exterior view of Mollie that helps us see both her vulnerability and gumption.

It all contributes to a richly layered whole.

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Book review – The Fisherwoman and Other Stories by Philip Charter

The Fisherwoman and Other Stories coverThis richly packed collection of short stories by Philip Charter carries you across planets and through time. In each instance, Charter shows his talent for summoning just the right level of detail, painting in scenes with startlingly precise vivacity so you can picture and feel the exact slant of sunlight and depth of shade.

The collection opens with the title tale – a story about stories set in a futuristic world. It centres around a koi pond and an old women noticed daily by the narrator, who feels compelled to open up to this stranger during the course of the tale. It reads as a curious and confident fable with a whisper of warning about the harm we’re doing to our home planet.

Other intriguing fables include Peloten, which reports the sighting of “thousands of riderless bicycles” and their impact on the populous.

“They travelled clockwise, around a huge circuit of streets, like they were competing in a race with no rules and no finishing line. Capturing and dismantling them didn’t help, it just resulted in the appearance of an identical one the next morning, completing the herd of exactly eight thousand one hundred and twenty-eight machines.”

Knowing what to resolve and what to leave unknown is clearly another of Charter’s skills. Continue reading