Left – Gig Clarke and Nadine Garner. Cover – Dan Spielman, Nicholas Denton, Paul Goddard, Gig Clarke and Nadine Garner. Photos – Pia Johnson
In a rightful world, the tragedy of Rosalind Franklin’s death at only 37 would have been the sole contributor to her unrealised potential, but in Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51, the social climate of the 1940’s and 50’s proves a significant collaborator in loss we will never know.
Rosalind Franklin was one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century with her x-ray image, ‘Photograph 51’, revealing to the world for the first time that the intricacies and structure of DNA was in fact a double helix. Despite the enormity of this discovery, she was largely uncredited for her endeavours despite her research being pivotal in snaring the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins.
Nadine Garner is without question one of our finest actors and as Rosalind Franklin she is utterly compelling. A genuine and thoroughly committed performance tinged with sadness and beautifully considered in subtle detail. Garner's vocal and physical choices are echoed in commentary about her character within the text and indeed from wider reading. A play about complex science does suggest a somewhat parched evening but this is genuinely gripping enjoyable stuff helped immensely by Garner's skilful extraction and delivery of humour particularly resulting from Franklin’s incredibly articulate deprecation of colleagues and contemporaries.
Pamela Rabe directs and opts for simplicity and actor driven tension by keeping her full cast tightly trapped as if neutrons inside Nick Schlieper’s clever and striking atom like set for the play’s entire duration. With such a minimal set and only the most basic of props, this is brilliant direction and abundantly efficient telling of a complex story.
While absolutely Garner's show, a strong cast make this journey satisfying ensemble work. Gig Clarke presents Franklin’s graduate assistant Ray Gosling as a charming, but socially awkward boffin delivering some necessary lightness to the piece. While as her pained adversary, Paul Goddard is excellent as Maurice Wilkins bringing genuine depth and hints of retrospective guilt for his part in denying Franklin due credit for her capabilities and discoveries. As for Watson and Crick, Nicholas Denton and Dan Spielman are pleasingly shady and though narratively significant, somehow deservedly backgrounded within a play about Franklin. As her ‘companion’ and former post-doctoral student Don Caspar, Yalin Ozucelik is attentive in giving Rosalind dimension and scope away from the lab.
The sophistication of Photograph 51 beckons questioning beyond the undeniable obstacles of time and circumstance and highlights obstacles of character. Franklin was prickly, tricky, direct, forthright and stubborn and her reluctance to collaborate is touted here as a major pointer to her subsequent lack of acclaim. In a man, such qualities would perhaps not have been a hindrance to success or credibility and conceivably even revered; but in a woman! Franklin in Photograph 51 is proffered as a scientist driven and utterly committed to her work and the work alone with acclaim seemingly being far from her motivation.
Rosalind Franklin's contribution in unlocking the building blocks of life is miraculous not only of itself but also that it occurred against a backdrop of significant challenge. Would Franklin welcome posthumous ennoblement as a feminist figure? Would she even have been included in that Nobel Prize ceremony had she still been alive? We won’t ever know.
In staging Photograph 51, MTC eloquently opens debate about the consequence of severing and hindering potential and the worth of ensuring possibility for all.
An engaging important work expertly delivered.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Anna Ziegler
Director Pamela Rabe
Venue: Fairfax Studio | Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: 1 November – 14 December 2019
Bookings: mtc.com.au | 03 8688 0800