Photograph 51 Reviewer Adam Rafferty
History is littered with stories of women who made great achievements but who were ultimately overlooked as the men around them were credited for the hard work they did. Thanks to American playwright Anna Ziegler, one less woman – British chemist and x-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin (Nadine Garner) – won’t be so easily swept from our collective memory.
As history would have it, the unique and irresistibly beautiful double-helix shape of DNA was first correctly modelled by James Watson (Nicholas Denton) and Francis Crick (Dan Spielman) in February 1953. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was subsequently awarded to the pair in 1962, along with molecular biologist Maurice Wilkins (Paul Goddard), the man who shared with them a high-quality image of “B” form DNA – the eponymous ‘Photograph 51’ – that allowed them to deduce the correct structure of the molecule.
What’s missing from that story is that the photograph was provided to Wilkins by Ray Gosling (Gig Clarke), the research assistant of Rosalind Franklin on her instructions. It wasn’t his work at all. Wilkins was in fact Franklin’s research ‘partner’, but the title implied upon her by Kings College London where the pair worked, was a role the woman was reluctant to take. Determined not to be relegated into the position of deputy or have someone else analyse her data, she kept Wilkins at arm’s length. In order to defer his intrusions, Franklin had him given the photograph to study while she focused her attentions on the image of “A” form DNA.
While the boy’s club of 1950s university research laboratories unquestionably made it likely she’d be uncredited for her work, combining that with her desire not to collaborate meant she almost had a hand in her own erasure from the pages of history. To add insult to injury, the tragic circumstances caused by not taking greater care around the dangers of her research instruments has meant this great female scientist of the 20th Century has been all too easily forgotten today.
Thankfully, the 21st Century has seen a renewed desire to shine a light on the challenges faced by women in male-dominated fields and it’s this element of the Photograph 51 that sustains the greatest interest. Recreating the chase to find ‘the secret to life’ is perhaps not so intriguingly captured by Ziegler.
Science can be a dry subject for drama, but many have proven in the past to make such complex content not only easy for the layman to understand but engaging and even suspenseful. There’s none of that in Photograph 51. While we all understand what value being able to recognise DNA has in a 21st Century sense, a better understanding of what Deoxyribonucleic acid is and why these scientists in the 1950s were so determined to find it would perhaps have provided some context to moisturise the bone-dry plot. It might also have helped to empathise with the ambitious and distant Franklin.
Garner gives Franklin excellent characterisation, breaking the great chemist’s steely determination with only fleeting glances of vulnerability, yet not allowing her to be so severe as to become completely unsympathetic. This is also helped by the inclusion of the character of Don Caspar (Yalin Ozucelik) a young PhD graduate from Yale who conducts correspondence with Franklin before being awarded a fellowship to work under her shortly before her brief life ended. Ozucelik is completely enamouring in this spritely role and it’s charming to witness the American biologist melt her icy exterior ever so slightly.
Structurally, it’s perfect that Ziegler has aligned her cast as one female amongst five males and director Pamela Rabe keeps the cohort of men on stage with Franklin creating a world of constant implied intimidation. Each scientist is given excellent nuance and definition, even the awarded partnership of Watson and Crick: Nicholas Denton’s Watson is all manic energy and boundless enthusiasm, Dan Spielman’s Crick is calmer and more considered, the world-weary family man. Paul Goddard as Franklin’s supposed ‘boss’, relegated to ‘partner’, is drawn as desperate and feckless, always looking for a do-over. Gig Clarke’s Gosling, the only truly upright one amongst Franklin’s co-workers, embodies the scientist with respect and deference.
Nick Schlieper’s elliptical stage design, with allusions to the helix structure, is simple yet effective and pays off nicely for the finale with embedded lighting. His lighting design fails to achieve its goal however, when the ‘big reveal’ of the double-helix discovery is made in shadow-play and only one side of the structure is truly projected properly on the back wall. Esther Marie Hayes’ costume designs capture the era beautifully and Sound Design by Mary Finsterer provides effective ambience.
Learning of an unsung hero of science offers the possibility of a truly fascinating entertainment. I only wish Anna Ziegler had captured the story in a way that made the science as interesting as the circumstances. This a solid production of play that’s sometimes sadly as bromidic as a chemist’s laboratory.
Performances: 4 Stars
Sets: 3.5 Stars
Costumes: 4 Stars
Lighting: 3.5 Stars
Sound: 4 Stars
Direction: 4 Stars
Script: 3.5 Stars