Photograph 51

13 Sep

Ensemble’s production of Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51, directed by Anna Ledwich, is utterly engaging theatre; intellectually stimulating and deeply moving.

It tells the story of Rosalind Franklin, one of the researchers who in the 1950’s uncovered the secrets of DNA.

Despite it’s reputation as a pure pursuit of knowledge, science is just another human activity, tainted by human failings.  

Rosalind is excluded from male enclaves and the attendant conversations in which ideas are casually shared. She’s assumed to be incapable of theoretical insight, and attempts are made to reduce her role to that of a technician. She’s portrayed by the male scientists as some sort of harridan simply for standing her ground. And she’s ultimately robbed of …. ah, but that’s a spoiler for those who don’t know her personal history. Let’s leave it this way: the conclusion is heartrending.

Yes, the play’s about science, but Ziegler’s extraordinary script is thoroughly captivating because it tells a very human story. Her Rosalind is a complete person, not a straw victim. She’s sublimely intelligent and gloriously independent, but we’re also asked to consider whether her flaws are inevitable responses to discrimination. Is Rosalind simply overly cautious? Does she really need to keep everyone at such a distance? Amber McMahon is absolutely magnificent in the role.

And the supporting cast do equally brilliant work. Garth Holcombe as Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind’s colleague at Kings College, is a superb portrait of a man threatened, one who would like to be noble, but who can’t quite manage it. His advice to PhD candidate Raymond Gosling (played with charm by Gareth Yuen) is to be kind to women; but the inadequacy of this advice – its patriarchal overtones – is beyond his comprehension. Ziegler employs a motif from The Winter’s Tale to underline this. Rosalind has seen Peter Brook’s production of the play starring John Gielgud as Leontes (but in a wonderful irony can’t recall the actor playing Hermione). Wilkins knows the work well, and the two might bond over this shared interest, except for their very different readings of the play’s finale. Does Hermione really survive? It’s a beautiful playwright’s trick, a gorgeous encapsulation of the issues at stake, and a sophisticated embrace of the openness of the dramatic form.    

Robert Jago as Francis Crick and Toby Blome as James Watson powerfully embody another very human flaw that mars the supposedly noble pursuit that is science: competition. The goal of discovering the truth of the DNA molecule is reduced to a “race” and, when an understanding is finally achieved, Crick asks grandly do you know what this means – only to offer a staggeringly uninspiring answer: wealth, status, women….

Emma Vine’s beautiful set, ostensibly a laboratory, evokes a chapel. It’s a poignant touch.  Are Science and Religion at odds? Rosalind says they are. But, at their best, both embody a humble desire for truth. At their worst, both are tragically beholden to the machinations of power.  

Paul Gilchrist

Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler

Ensemble Theatre until Oct 8

ensemble.com.au

Photo Credit Teniola Komolafe

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