Review: ‘Photograph 51’ shines a spotlight on an unsung scientific hero

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Review: ‘Photograph 51’ shines a spotlight on an unsung scientific hero

Photo: Pia Johnson
Words by James Robertson


Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 is Melbourne Theatre Company’s latest offering that invites you to witness the lives of the people behind one of the greatest scientific milestones. Directed by Pamela Rabe, the production is an emotional and invigorating portrayal of the events leading up to the discovery of the double helix.

Set during the early 1950s in Cambridge, the play documents the life and work of scientist Rosalind Franklin. Determined and driven, Franklin, played superbly by Nadine Garner, attempts to strive forward in a world dominated by male co-workers. This is bolstered by the fact that Garner herself is the only woman on the stage.

As she works tirelessly day in and day out to take the most detailed photograph of a DNA strand to date, Franklin falls prey to subterfuge and instigates her fair share of office squabbles along the way. Playing opposite Garner is Paul Goddard as Maurice Wilkins, Franklin’s appointed lab partner (and boss) who, though he may try his hardest, can never appease her.

The six-piece cast solidly round out the minimalist style of the production, with each actor having their own moment to steal the show or throw in a chuckle-worthy quip. The humble character of Ray Gosling, played by Gig Clarke, often takes the limelight with his deadpan delivery of the play’s great comic lines and his self-deprecatory persona.

Nick Schlieper’s superb stage design is a minimalist creation which complements the play’s storyline amicably. The dark blue oval shape positioned in the centre of the stage is where the main action is set, with each actor making their way along the marked outlines as though they were asteroids travelling through space. Surrounding the stage is an entire circular bench where the actors sit ‘off-stage’ or walk around as they speak directly to the audience.

In addition to the stage being visually stunning, the costumes provide great contextualisation for the time period and location. With each actor adorned in suits of muted greys or deep blue dresses, it felt as if the audience were watching these characters through an old, grainy television set of the time.

Anna Ziegler’s tight script often deals with the subject of deeply complicated biophysics, with technical science jargon thrown about the dialogue. The play skirts close to being unintelligible to the average viewer, but just misses being written off as ‘too sciencey’ as the true nature of the story is not really concerned with the technicalities of double helix’s discovery.

Instead, it demonstrates the active sexism that subjugated women like Franklin and how she was able to rise above it. Poignant and fleetingly touching at times, Photograph 51 offers a different historical angle to laud the woman who made one of the biggest scientific achievements of the 20th century.

Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Photograph 51 is running until Saturday December 14 at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Fairfax Studio.

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