Review: Photograph 51 (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Sep 2 – Oct 8, 2022
Playwright: Anna Ziegler
Director: Anna Ledwich
Cast: Toby Blome, Garth Holcombe, Robert Jago, Amber McMahon, Jake Speer, Gareth Yuen
Images by Teniola Komolafe

Theatre review
When Dr Rosalind Franklin began working at King’s College London in 1951, full of promise and on the precipice of hugely consequential discoveries, not only was she one of the scarce few women scientists at the institution, she was the only Jew. Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 discusses the discrimination Dr Franklin suffered in a man’s world, as it tells the story of the chemist and X-ray crystallographer’s ground-breaking inventions, and how her male colleagues had taken credit for her achievements.

Ziegler’s is a piece of writing with integrity, containing a substantial amount of scientific information that, unfortunately proves difficult to turn entertaining for general audiences. Director Anna Ledwich ensures that all the comedy incorporated into the text, is painstakingly fleshed out, but they never really feel intrinsic to the tale. The core of the exercise, of seeking justice and empathy for Dr Franklin, remains sombre and distant; it is clear what the play intends, but it struggles to connect.

Actor Amber McMahon brings natural charisma to a personality expressly described as charmless, but Dr Franklin’s characteristic coldness only further alienates. Garth Holcombe has greater scope for theatricality, in the role of reluctant associate Dr Wilkins, and succeeds in delivering sporadic moments of genuine amusement. Four additional players (Toby Blome, Robert Jago, Jake Speer and Gareth Yuen) appropriately focus on bringing levity to the piece, but for all the blitheness they wish to introduce to Photograph 51, it insists on a certain aloofness.

A highlight of the presentation comes in the form of lighting design, by Trudy Dalgleish who conveys  variations to spatial and emotional dimensions, in subtle but satisfying ways. Her sumptuous illumination of Emma Vine’s imaginative and cleverly rendered set design, offers beautiful interpretations of clinical laboratories, sparing us the sterility usually dominant in those rooms. Similarly, Jessica Dunn’s music and sounds attempt to bring a tenderness and a sense of humanity, to a tale that is essentially concerned with the molecular structure of DNA.

It is arguable that little has changed since 1951 in terms of men habitually claiming recognition for women’s work, but it is undeniable that there are mechanisms today that were unavailable to Dr Franklin, that could help women bring disruption to the boys’ club. We have learned to organise, and have access to technologies, that can assist in levelling out the playing field. We have men who now acknowledge gender disparities, and are trying to interrogate the system from within. If only Dr Franklin’s mode of radical thinking in the realm of science, was applied to social justice at a earlier time, it is likely she would have seen a greater glory.