In the mid-20th century, a young English scientist named Rosalind Franklin discovered the density of DNA and, more importantly, established that the molecule existed in a helical (or spiral) conformation.
Never heard of her? No, it seems most people haven’t, and that’s why this play was penned by playwright Anna Ziegler, who wished to bring this “incredibly inspiring scientist” to audiences’ attention. Photograph 51 tells the story of Dr Franklin, a preternaturally gifted scientist who came up against sexism, anti-Semitism and exclusion throughout her career before she died at 37 of ovarian cancer.
The play is set in 1951, as Franklin leaves a position in Paris as a laboratory chemist to return to her native England and King’s College, London where she has won a three-year fellowship. Upon her arrival, she is neither accorded the respect she deserves nor even the position she successfully applied for by her stuffy colleague, biophysicist Maurice Wilkins. “I will be no-one’s assistant,” she frostily informs him as they reluctantly agree to be co-workers.
Constantly derided and disrespected, she ploughs on undeterred with her work on DNA fibres, assisted by a graduate student, Ray Gosling.
When she and Gosling make a breakthrough by taking a photograph of X-ray diffraction that reveals how DNA works, this ‘photograph 51’ is shared with Wilkins, who in turn decides to share it with the competitive University of Cambridge duo, scientists Francis Crick and James Watson. Working together, the male trio are awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962, without any credit whatsoever being given to Franklin, who had died in 1958.
This play’s topic is indisputably science (admittedly, not this reviewer’s forte) however it also about people, relationships, workplaces and sexism. The talented and versatile Amber McMahon as Franklin is well supported by an all-male cast playing the scientists with whom she worked or against whom she competed. There is even one – Don Caspar – who seems romantically infatuated with her – a fact she barely seems to register, so devoted is she to her work.
The play was well received by the Opening Night audience with plenty of obvious sympathy for Franklin’s position. At one point, the scientist James Watson confides to Franklin’s colleague, Maurice Wilkins: “She really is a right old hag, I can’t believe what you had to put up with.”
The irony was not lost on the audience.
Photograph 51, Ensemble Theatre, Sydney
Until 8 October, 2022.