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Photo by Teniola Komolafe

Photograph 51

Ensemble Theatre presents PHOTOGRAPH 51, by Anna Ziegler, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli. 13th September - 8th October 2022.

PHOTOGRAPH 51, is an American play by Anna Ziegler (2008). It is a one act work of about 90 minutes length and it focuses on a remarkable scientist Dr Rosalind Franklin (Amber McMahon), leading a team of male comrades in the investigation into the “secret of life” using x-ray crystallography to reveal the atomic structure of DNA – the famed Double Helix.

This discovery happened in 1951 in the King’s College laboratory in the city of London which was still recovering from the collateral destruction of that city via the second World War. This discovery won the Nobel Prize of 1962 for three of the male collaborators. Doctor Rosalind Franklin had been forgotten, relatively, and probably, because she had died in 1958, at the age of 37 of ovarian cancer, which may have been contracted during her research developments. This play attempts to bring this woman into the light – to tell HERSTORY rather than history alone.

It may have been her manner :

As a girl I prided myself on always being right. Because I was always right, I drove my family near mad by relentlessly proposing games to play that I’d win every time […] And when I was at University, and it was becoming clear to my parents, as it always had been for me that I would pursue science, I left Cambridge to meet my father for a hiking weekend. And atop a mountain in the Lake District, when I was eighteen years old he said to me, “Rosalind, if you go forward with this life … you must never be wrong.

And in her lifetime behaviour she believed she never was – and this was an irksome trait for a woman (and especially a Jew) to have in the British halls of science in the 1950’s.

Reports of her brilliant research work in Paris caused an invitation for her to join a team of fellow scientists in London, working in the same territory of investigation, only to discover that she was invited not as the leader of the research but as just one of a team. Considering the contextual. social and political mores of the period she experienced outrageous chauvinism, misogyny and ‘casual’ sentiments that amounted to anti-semitism. This was not news to her and because of a lifetime of negative experience she had donned a personal defence mechanism (armour) that courted no such permission for it to be seen and heard and she shame-faced her fellow scientists to respect her and to do as she suggested. Her manner was a shock and caused her to be declared, steely, demanding and cold – not to be trifled with.

The science in this play is handled by Ms Ziegler so that it never becomes an issue or a reason to not to attend. Be not afraid, it is handled with a simple clarity that is never condescending but often full of comprehensible humour. In a dramaturgical structure that unravels with interactive engagements between the characters and, as well, as a fourth wall breakdown where each of the characters narrate, explain, comment straight to us, the audience. it is a disarming and clever range of choice in the otherwise complicated landscape of the play.

The ‘objective’ coolness of the behaviour of the scientists in the competitive, passionate pursuit of the step-by-step advancement of research and experimentation is lightly handled, it has no heavy burden of didactic detail or explanation. It has, instead, a lucidity and a ‘joyful’ feel in the pursuit to prove that there is a Double Helix of DNA – the secret of life – proved in a photographic image taken by the laboratory assistant, the humorous Ray Gosling (Gareth Yuen) : the famous Photograph 51.

As well, throughout the play of the scientific interactions there is a subtle reveal of the ‘subjective’ obstacles, behavioural quirks of each of the scientists that gives another dimension to the pursuit of the ‘meaning of life’ : the breakdown of marriage and personal relationships and struggles of doubt, or of the love that our driven heroine has for nature that is the flora and fauna, the rise and setting of the sun, as seen on a hiking trip to mountain tops, or in a theatre watching actors in the guise of being Leontes and Hermione, bring Shakespeare’s THE WINTER’S TALE to life, presenting us with another ‘double helix’ – the double helix of the scientist’s joy and the simplicity of each humane individual who are part of a species that consciously pursues meaning in just enduring the length of our lives. This play by Anna Ziegler has a creeping reveal that brings an observational and experiential warmth to take home : The complications of understanding the biological key to the formation of life – the first helix – and in the just living our lives – the second helix. The double helix of the objective approach and the subjective one. The ‘thinking’ one and the ‘feeling’ one.

The characters are carefully brought to life by this team of actors with great joyful accuracy in the crisp, astringent verbal comedy of each: Garth Holcombe creating Maurice Wilkins, the old fashioned stiff-upper-lipped English scientist boffin, attempting to move in the new post-war world where the old ‘ways’ are been harassed and superseded. The telling of the witnessing of THE WINTER’S TALE at the same performance that Doctor Franklin attended is moving in all the repeated restraint and unacted-upon passion that the two sexes have in the famously painful David Lean film, BRIEF ENCOUNTER, by Noel Coward. The clumsy confession of this experience by Wilkins is agonising in its telling – it is, we all know, too late.

Gareth Yuen playing Ray Gosling, the laboratory assistant, is delightfully nimble, utterly charming in his verbal comic timing as the ‘gofer’ for this team of demanding scientists – not least Doctor Franklin, herself. No burden is too much! No temper is revealed. Good will shines in this man.

The double act of the young American scientist, James Watson, inhabited as a juvenile patriarchal ‘pig’ with a skull of remarkable hair, by Toby Blome, in the most light hearted manner, alongside Robert Jago, as Francis Crick, a curiously mischievous observer of the ‘manners’ of Doctor Franklin, who, he believes, needs to be brought down from off her perch, create both cruel, stealthy and yet gradually human specimens of humanity – foolish and yet oddly, innocent, as a trait of male myopia domination.

Whilst, on the other hand, the gentle and love struck American scientist, Don Caspar, made by Jake Speer, has the beautiful arc of the ‘husband-who-might-have been’ if illness had not intervened. Mr Speer’s warmth made us feel the sadness of Casper’s loss before it could be declared fully in action.

Amber MacMahon is externally steely and defensive, and yet alerts us to the depth of this woman in her winning, comic verbal ‘battles’ for survival in this masculine room, and by employing the subtle and swift flashes of character vulnerability that unless you have been attentive you may have missed. It is the most intricate and disciplined performance that shows an actor of great insight with a ‘tool box’ of skills to pull it off.

Directed surely, helming this team of artists, is Anna Lednvich, on a Set Design that creates a comfortable (and practical) world of abstracted scientific apparatus and in a Costume Design of studied character detail, by Emma Vine, supported by the Music and sound design of Jessica Dunn, and the ever reliable lighting by Ensemble regular, Trudy Dalgleish.

PHOTOGRAPH 51, is the best theatre I have seen for ages. The talents and skills of all the artists serve the Writer well and the Audience spectacularly. Do go. It is a terrific night in the theatre and culturally, a great relief in the overwhelming mediocrity that one so often spends one’s money on and, unfortunately, wastes one’s time with in Sydney.

P.S. It was so stimulating to attend the National Theatre Broadcast last weekend of the Bridge Theatre production of David Hare’s latest play STRAIGHT LINE CRAZY. It was not a perfect night in the cinema (theatre) but, by gosh it provoked a stimulating discussion afterwards. There was much to criticise and much to admire, that made that experience a wealthy time gained. Unlike most of the Sydney work, where one wants to flee quickly home, to that book or series to binge. What was there to discuss?