Most people would have encountered the famous duo Watson and Crick in their high school science classrooms when learning about the structure of DNA. But few will have heard about the context surrounding the monumental discovery and the duo’s rivalry with an early pioneer for women in science; a story comprised of pride, betrayal, and a tragic early death.
This year has brought an interest in scientific inquiry to the Ensemble stage after the production of Nearer the Gods in March unravelled the discovery of the elliptical movements of the planets by Isaac Newton in 1684 and, now, Photograph 51 tells the little-known history behind the discovery of the structure of DNA and the female scientist who led the charge but lost the glory, Dr Rosalind Franklin (Amber McMahon). Anna Ziegler’s play follows the scientist from her early work in Paris to her fellowship at King’s College London where she formed a team with Dr Maurice Wilkins (Garth Holcombe) and PhD student Ray Gosling (Gareth Yuen) and began work using x-ray diffraction photography to photograph DNA and work out its structure. At the same time in a lab at the University of Cambridge, another pair of scientists were also working on the structure of DNA. James Watson (Toby Blome) and Francis Crick (Robert Jago) had their eye on being the first to model the structure, competing against Franklin and Wilkins in a race they didn’t even know they were running. Our history books tell us who got there first, but Ziegler’s dramatisation of Dr Rosalind Franklin’s life tells the complicated story of her success in the field, obstacles of sexism and conflicting personalities, and the untimely death of a woman considered a forgotten heroine of molecular biology.
Director Anna Ledwich staged Photograph 51 with an air of collaboration much like that in the university labs in which the characters worked. The actors not involved in the scene loitered around the stage edges and in the audience aisles, watching and offering quick commentary on the timeline of the story and their conflicting memories of events. In the same way that Franklin was written out of history when her contributions to Watson and Crick’s discovery went uncredited, there was a sense that the retelling of her story was also a deliberate construction with some information made pertinent, like the possibility that her work with x-rays caused her later cancer, while some remained obscured, like her personal life and inner world.
The set design by Emma Vine was sophisticated in its recreation of the academic spaces of labs, offices, and conferences. High back walls with bottles of solutions and small wooden drawers created a cozy atmosphere while niches and slivers cut out of the walls and illuminated with a warm glow gave a romantic nostalgia to the 50s era. Trudy Dalgleish’s lighting design made use of warm directed light and cool shadows to shrink and expand the staging as the characters moved in and out of memories, while the composition and sound design by Jessica Dunn signalled clear emotional beats in the narrative arc with building instrumental music. The overall sense of the production design was professional elegance with a cinematic sleekness that also translated to how the actors moved smoothly through the entire space.
Much of Franklin’s work was hampered by typical sexism that jostled her around the male-dominated environment of academia but Ziegler’s script also payed particular attention to the specific personalities of the men on the scene and how an environment of rivalry and pride caused easy and persistent personal conflicts between Franklin and her peers. Blome and Jago portrayed Watson and Crick as loud, brash Americans who lacked the manners and delicacy of British scientists, while at the same time they conveyed a changing tide that prioritised fame and notoriety in a way that Franklin and Wilkins didn’t. In the King’s College labs, the trio of Holcombe, Yuen, and McMahon was prickly, dictated to by a cool, detached professionalism that Franklin preferred. McMahon’s Franklin was stern but passionate and dedicated, coming alive when lining up x-ray beams or analysing photographs. Alongside, Holcombe’s performance of Wilkins was rounded and nuanced with a clear struggle for him to reconcile perceived failures in his personal and professional life. Strangely, particularly as he literally orchestrated the final moments of the production, Wilkins formed the emotional heart of the story despite its purported focus on Franklin and her unacknowledged achievements.
Perhaps the greatest irony of Photograph 51 was that, even in a well-intentioned effort to centre a woman widely regarded as a leader in her field for men and women alike and to increase awareness of her work as someone who actively prioritised it in her lifetime above all else, the production could not escape discussion of family and domesticity. It was as though the mere presence of a woman in the workplace threw her male colleagues into reflection about their failed marriages and estranged children in the case of Wilkins, the sacrifice of a marriage to the work in the case of Crick, and, even in the one character who demonstrated ample respect for Franklin from the beginning, the American grad student Don Caspar (Jake Speer) still desired a more romantic relationship with Franklin once he met her. Perhaps Franklin had equally complicated feelings about marriage and families, maybe she lamented her position as having to choose between a family and her career, or maybe she never wanted a domestic life and it never crossed her mind. It’s hard to know because, when her male colleagues had heart-to-hearts and emotional confessions, she was working away in the lab.
Like other dramatisations of scientific breakthroughs like the Imitation Game or Hidden Figures, Photograph 51 attempts to peel back layers of dense jargon and dull bureaucracy to find the human centre of these stories while injecting cinematic drama and urgency. For Dr Rosalind Franklin, decades-late recognition of her work and her name didn’t come at the cost of her privacy and dedication to the work itself, a relief of a kind.
Photograph 51 is running at Ensemble Theatre from September 2nd – October 8th
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