The Melbourne Theatre Company’s Photograph 51 dramatises the inexorable diminishment of a brilliant woman, says Alison Croggon
Sexism, like every -ism and –phobia, is, in the end, simply exhausting. These structural prejudices are so intimately woven into our daily interactions that they become invisible to the casual eye: they are “natural”, the “way things are”.
To object to these prejudices, or even to refuse to conform to the stereotypes they demand, is to disrupt the comfortable assumptions of that underlie the smooth working of the world as it is supposed to be. Consequently, they all come with an inbuilt package of plausible deniability – witness the swarms who deny that the gender pay gap is a thing, that women are paid less because they have babies or not as skilful as men or just don’t work hard enough. Then there’s the gaslighting, which you see when any person of colour complains about racism, when they will be routinely accused of causing the abuse they suffer.
To unravel the intricacies of prejudice in action, to make them visible in the face of their ongoing default maintenance, is exhausting. Not to unravel them is also exhausting, because it means enduring all the tiny checks that impede progress every day, that are “natural”, “the way things are”. But even though you are resigned to them, they still erode your being.
Every now and then you might have a glimpse of what it would be like to live outside the assumptions that trammel you: not having, constantly, to prove your expertise, or even your humanity; not constantly having to dispel the expectations that go with having a disabled body, the wrong gender, the wrong-coloured skin. You may recognise, with a thrill of anger, that there are paths full of ease that you have never seen open. And that those who tread those primrose ways are sublimely unaware of the rocks that bruise the feet of others.
It’s all such a waste of human energy, which is why it feels like a relief when you see someone carefully and clearly articulate how these systemic bigotries work, with all their confounding complexities. In Photograph 51, now playing in a production stylishly directed by Pamela Rabe at the Melbourne Theatre Company, American playwright Anna Ziegler explores some of these complexities through the story of Dr Rosalind Franklin, the brilliant British chemist and X-ray crystallographer whose pioneering work in making the invisible visible was fundamental to the discovery of the structure of DNA.
The Cambridge researchers Francis Crick and James Watson successfully modelled DNA’s double helix structure after seeing Franklin’s photographs. Photograph 51 refers to an image taken by Franklin and her graduate student, Raymond Gosling, which was leaked to Crick and Watson without Franklin’s knowledge. In 1962, Crick, Watson and Franklin’s Kings College collaborator, Maurice Wilkins, shared the Noble Prize for their research; but Franklin’s foundational contribution was written out of history. Watson’s gossipy account of the discovery, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, was controversially dismissive of Franklin, both as a scientist and a woman.
That’s a lot of back story, which in Photograph 51 is communicated through direct address narrative that at times can get a little clunkily Theatre-in-Education. Despite this, Ziegler’s play features some extraordinarily beautiful writing, especially in the several poetic monologues that invoke the awe that the natural world generates in the curious human mind; and Rabe’s production brings all that beauty to the fore.
The show’s design elements immediately heighten the play’s sense of the poetic. Rabe has brought together a top production team – Nick Schlieper on set and lighting, Esther Mary Hayes (a third of the multidisciplinary art group The Sister Hayes) on costumes and composer Mary Finsterer as sound designer and composer. Schlieper’s eye-catching set is a kind of Theatrum Mundi, an image of the world, that sits beautifully in the notoriously tricky Fairfax at Arts Centre Melbourne. The floor features a circular world-image with a line spiralling out from the centre. The actors sit on a rim around the edge, moving in and out of the stage as their parts require.
For all its drama, this is a design that frames and amplifies the performances; and the cast is what makes this production. At the centre is Nadine Garner as Rosalind Franklin: spiky, abrasive, driven, and very much the opposite of what femininity is supposed to be. Garner creates a character of extraordinarily fine sensitivities – tense and febrile, flinching from and yet yearning for close human contact – and she’s riveting all the way through.
Franklin is portrayed as a sole woman surrounded by men (in reality there were a few women in her field, but she may as well have been alone). Despite the gripping interest of the story, Ziegler’s real gift is in showing the banality of what happened to Franklin, the mundane familiarity of the social conventions that she successfully challenged and which also defeated her.
The ambitious young American scientist Watson (Nicholas Denton) is the least sympathetically portrayed character, with acidic scenes in which he mocks Franklin’s Jewishness as well as her femaleness; but in Denton’s hands, even he isn’t a cliché. And he is simply, in his brash American way, voicing the unsaid criticisms of his British colleagues.
The shy and awkward Wilkins (Paul Goddard), her hapless collaborator, “gets off on the wrong foot” because he can’t see past her female body and treat her as an equal colleague. Ziegler is good on male unawareness: on Franklin’s first day, Wilkins has lunch in the fellow’s room, where women are not permitted, underlining her inferior status. Meanwhile, Franklin’s assistant Ray Gosling (Gig Clarke) finds himself uncomfortably in the middle, attempting to mediate a failing collaboration.
While Franklin focuses on her research, others – notably Watson and Crick (a finely judged performance from Dan Spielman) – are ramping up the competition. Who will be the first to discover the truth about DNA, the secret of life itself? Her only real ally is Don Caspar (Yalin Ozucelik), an admirer of her work, and also, tellingly, Jewish; in a conversation that reminds us that in the 1950s the horrors of WW2 were a very recent memory, we realise that he is the only man there who knows what it means to be marginalised.
Franklin’s response to the double helix discovery is one of disappointment and exhaustion; she comments that all knowledge is built on the work of others. As Ziegler tells it, for all Franklin’s brusque insistence that she be treated as equal, she internalised the patriarchy’s diminishment of her sex, as all women do, whether they resist it or not; she certainly didn’t describe herself as a feminist. Her faith, even when she was dying of ovarian cancer, was in the integrity of the work.
Photograph 51 is a fascinating story, beautifully told; but the real sting in the tail is how it dramatises the inexorable diminishment of a brilliant woman, as trivial dismissals – which we now call micro-aggressions – mount up to her complete erasure. As with the molecular structure of DNA, the tiniest of interactions model the larger structures. None of the male characters is a monster, nor even especially ill-intended: but their actions are shaped by assumptions that lead to monstrous results.
Thankfully the play resists any false sense of triumph: there’s no attempt to suggest that the subsequent acknowledgement of Franklin’s achievements is any kind of compensation for what happened to her. And maybe, if this same story weren’t so common more than half a century later, Ziegler could have talked about justice.
Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler, directed by Pamela Rabe. Set and lighting by Nick Schlieper, costumes by Esther Marie Hayes, composition and sound design Mary Finsterer. Performed by Gig Clarke, Nicholas Denton, Nadine Garner, Paul Goddard, Yalin Ozucelik, Dan Spielman. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne. Until December 14. Bookings
Wheelchair Accessible, Hearing Assistance
Audio Described: Saturday November 23 at 2pm, Tuesday November 26 at 6.30pm
Tactile Tour: Prior to the Saturday 23 November performance at 1pm
Open Captioning via screen: Saturday November 30 at 2pm