Interview: Felix Hayes and Dr Semmelweis

Sonia Friedman Productions and the National Theatre presents the Bristol Old Vic production of Dr Semmelwies for a strictly limited run at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End at the end of this month.

The story of the maverick Hungarian doctor remembered as one of medicine’s great pioneers is set in Vienna in the 19th century and directed by Tom Morris.

We spoke to cast member Felix Hayes, who plays Semmelweis’s friend and champion, Ferdinand von Hebra, to find out more about this “compelling new drama” (The Telegraph).

Felix Hayes headshot

Dr Semmelweis comes into the West End after an acclaimed run at Bristol Old Vic. What makes this play important and relevant to now?

Firstly, the play is a really brilliant story, told with delightful theatricality – a wonderful night at the theatre.

But the play also raises many issues, perhaps the most important of which is the way the establishment approach and react to new ways of thinking.

And I think now, more than ever, we need new ways of thinking, new ways of behaving.

Your character, Ferdinand von Hebra, is known for establishing the foundations of modern dermatology, and a supporter and champion of the work of Semmelwies. Was he an easy character to connect with?

Ha! Ferdinand Von Hebra was described as the Father of Dermatology – which doesn’t give us much in the way of who he was as a human – and so you have to turn to the text, to your imagination, to your instincts as a story teller, as an actor.

Von Hebra, in our show, is the empathetic foil to Dr Semmelweis’ scalpel sharpness. And I do find a deep connection with characters that really feel for those around them.

Full company of Dr Semmelweis

Why should audiences engage with a near three-hour play about medicine and hygiene? What’s the USP of this production?

It is about medicine and hygiene – but that makes it sound like a public information film!

It is more than that – it is a real Who Done It, it is a psychological thriller where we are on the hunt for a killer. A deeply gripping story.

What has it been like working with Mark Rylance, who has the lead role in this production?

Mark is a delight to play with – on stage, in rehearsal, he is wonderfully unpredictable, which makes scenes with him play out differently.

They shift, they never feel the same – there is a real delight in knowing that the performance will sing different notes each night.

The story remains the same, but sometimes the harmonies we are playing chime differently.

Bristol Old Vic has proved itself to be an accessible and inclusive big-hitter in the theatre industry in the past few years. What was the best thing about playing there?

The Bristol Old Vic is my home theatre. It is a space that never fails to delight me – its audience always feels like they are only feet away, as if the whole auditorium is being held by the company, by the story.

I think that it is these things that help create shows that find deep connections with its audience. It is a rare gem.

Dr Semmelweis at the Harold Pinter Theatre from 29 Jun-7 Oct. Tickets here.