Photograph 51

Photograph 51
By Anna Ziegler. Ensemble Theatre, Sydney. Directed by Anna Ledwich. 2 September – 8 October 2022

This must be the strongest production I’ve seen at the Ensemble in recent years. Never dull for a second, there is no better 90 minutes to be had in Sydney.

Anna Ziegler’s brilliant play tells the story of one of the world’s most important x-ray photographs. Photo 51 reveals the double-helix structure of the molecule that contains the genetic instructions for the development of all living organisms. And the young woman chemist whose pioneering work in the early 1950s lead to this discovery is Dr. Rosalind Franklin, here portrayed as standoffish, assertive, unwilling to play the games of her all-male colleagues.

Played to perfection by Amber McMahon, she bridles at the routine sexism of academic life of the time. ‘Why won’t she share her results?’ complain her rivals James Watson and Francis Crick, even as they work furiously on their own new model in secret.

Directed by Anna Ledwich, on Emma Vine’s brilliantly designed single work bench against a background of towering multiple drawers, the superb 90 minute production unfolds, revealing Franklin as an inspiring mixture of pride, vulnerability and passion.

She’s afraid to prematurely commit herself, even when she knows that she’s on the right path, and stands in the background, standoffish, assertive and unwilling to play the games of her all-male colleagues. To them she’s the dark lady of DNA.

And in this production her male colleagues are all played to the hilt: including Garth Holcombe as the biophysicist in charge, secretive and often downright unpleasant (women are barred from the senior canteen); Toby Blome as the odious James Watson and Robert Jago as Francis Crick, their eyes on the main chance.

And so it came about: Watson and Crick won the Nobel Prize in 1962. Rosalind Franklin, who died 4 years previously as the result of exposure to X-ray radiation, was forgotten.

But not by Anna Ziegler. She has revived her reputation in this terrific play.  

Frank Hatherley

Photographer_Teniola Komolafe

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