In 2015, Anna Ziegler’s play Photograph 51 was brought to London’s West End by the Michael Grandage Company, running at the Noel Coward Theatre from 5 September until 21 November 2015. It was in development for many years prior to this run, however, receiving its première in Maryland in February 2008, winning the STAGE International Script Competition the same year, and making its New York debut in October 2010 at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, following a period of development.
At the time it came to London, I had been living here for just about a year, and was making a concerted effort to get my MSc project going again. So when a few plays emerged that involved science in some way (such as The Hard Problem, Hapgood and Oppenheimer) I hit upon the idea of investigating science communication through theatre. Unfortunately for my studies, the new cast of Sunny Afternoon and my burgeoning blogging career were just too alluring, so it fell by the wayside. While I managed to see a decent proportion of these sciencey plays, Photograph 51 was one that managed to elude me; partly because of the aforementioned Sunny and reviewing, but also because casting Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman in the central role helped to make obtaining a ticket (at least, a reasonably priced ticket) more of a challenge than I’d have liked.
The play focuses in on the early 1950s and the race to find the structure of DNA – or, as some people saw it, “the secret of life”. James Watson and Francis Crick’s part in this story is well known, with their names going down in history as Nobel Prize winners. But Rosalind Franklin is a far less documented figure in the discovery of the double helix, though it was her X-ray crystallography work that proved to be the key to unlocking this scientific mystery. Indeed, the play’s title comes from the decisive X-ray. Franklin gets some well-deserved extra credit here, with her King’s College colleagues Maurice Wilkins, Ray Gosling and Don Caspar joining her, Crick and Watson to share the historic events with the audience.
Franklin has long been something of a forgotten woman in the story of the DNA double helix, a footnote in history overlooked by Watson, Crick & even her colleague Wilkins. So it’s great that her story has been shared with wider & more diverse audiences through the power of theatre – it’s not just important that each worker should get proper credit, but that women in science can be used as extra motivation & inspiration to new generations of female scientists (or women wanting to go into other previously male dominated careers), as well as more widely dispelling the myth that only men were involved in making groundbreaking discoveries.
Whilst the play is obviously about Rosalind Franklin and her part in the DNA race, it does seem to be quite dominated by the men in her life telling the story from their perspectives. At times it almost seems as if she’s not allowed to give her side of events, only addressing the audience directly on about three separate occasions, whereas the men get many more chances between them. And it almost seems rather too predictable that one or two of her male colleagues end up having romantic feelings towards her, with the theme of ‘missed opportunities’ extending out from the scientific battle to Wilkins’ professional & personal relationship with Franklin.
Having said that, it’s a well-written piece in terms of not overloading the scientific jargon and seeming able to maintain a decent pace throughout; as a piece designed to run straight-through with no interval, it flows well from one moment to the next, succinctly telling the story. You can easily imagine a practically bare stage, as suggested in the script notes, with the odd table appearing & disappearing, or projections being employed to make any transition between time & location seamless. A piece I do hope might be revived over here one day, though maybe in a more intimate space than the Noel Coward Theatre, to really play up the atmosphere and tension.