In November 2015, I was lucky enough to obtain tickets to see the award-winning and spell-binding play, Photograph 51, at the Noël Coward Theatre in London. The play takes its title from the name of the X-ray diffraction image taken by Rosalind Franklin and her assistant, Raymond Gosling, which ultimately played a key role in the determination of the double-helix structure of DNA.
As a PhD student in the field of crystallography and structural biology at the time, Rosalind Franklin was a figure of great inspiration to myself and many other women working within this field. I have always been interested in her story, so when I found out about this play I was extremely curious, especially when I learnt that Nicole Kidman would be playing the notable scientist. A major stroke of luck occurred for me to obtain two tickets to the final performance of the play, which had been sold out for months. The seats were in the Royal Circle, albeit on separate ends of the reasonably small theatre. However, as the play was 95 minutes with no interval, seats together was not a problem. In fact, meeting up with my mum afterwards following the extremely emotional performance felt even more poignant having spent 95 minutes apart experiencing the same emotions.
Yes, emotional would be the word I would use to describe this play. All the different aspects of the play contributed to these emotions. The script, the actors’ performances, the staging, lighting – everything. Upon first seeing the dark grey set, which had not had great reviews online, I was also slightly wary. However, as I sat waiting for the play to start I read a piece in the programme which stated that the set was designed to look like the underground laboratory at King’s College, London, in the aftermath of World War II (the play being set from the time Franklin started working there in 1951) – hence the dark and slightly sombre feel to the stage. This added an extra level of depth to the drama that would unfold upon it.
With only six main characters to the play, this was a play where less was certainly more. Knowing Nicole Kidman from Moulin Rouge fame, amongst other notable films, I was slightly concerned that she wouldn’t be able to understand Rosalind Franklin and the person she was, what it means to be a scientist, and a woman in science. However, from the very first few lines uttered by Kidman, I forgot that she was Nicole Kidman (I later saw an interview on the Graham Norton show where she spoke about the play and how her father was a biochemist). I was transported to the world of science and molecules, the way that I had learnt to love and experience science growing up. One of Rosalind’s first lines in the play are: “When I was a child I used to draw shapes. Shapes overlapping, like endless Venn diagrams…I drew patterns of the tiniest repeating structures. In my mind were patterns of the tiniest repeating structures.” These lines took me by surprise. Sitting in my seat at the back of the theatre, I almost let out a short gasp. I had forgotten that as a child at junior school, whenever I had finished the set lesson work early, I was given patterned sheets to colour in. I used to colour in endless numbers of these sheets of repeating patterns. I used to love it. And I had forgotten it, until now. I realised that perhaps I was meant to be doing a PhD in structural biology after all. Structural biology is repeating patterns. Crystals made up of repeating patterns. I knew I was going to enjoy this play.
From the cold but, at times, heart-breaking, relationship with Maurice Wilkins, to the splashes of comedy provided by Ray Gosling and the DNA pair, Watson and Crick, this play was all I could have hoped for and more in portraying this important story. It is a story of a woman who is focused on her work, sometimes too focused to see what is right in front of her. It is also a story of a person; a person who is humble and unable to really sell herself or her findings, so the excellence of her talent went unrecognised.
The play makes use of individual thoughts of certain characters, lines intertwined with narrations and fast conversations to hold the interest of the audience and build excitement in what could be, for non scientists, perhaps a potentially daunting topic for a West End play. The play culminates to a dramatic scene where Watson and Crick are finally realising the structure of DNA, and the structure of life itself, at the same time as Rosalind is having a heart-to-heart with friend Don Caspar. Their conversation hints at Rosalind’s desire to be loved, to be kissed, to experience life with a man at her side. Her loneliness. Then, just at the moment Watson and Crick have found the secret structure of life, Rosalind clutches her stomach. I knew what was coming, as I knew that Rosalind Franklin died from ovarian cancer at just 37. One of the main reasons why she was not named on the Nobel Prize for the structure of DNA, as this award is not given posthumously.
The final scene of the play between Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins is truly heart-breaking. I was so overcome with emotion that I could just not hold back the tears. The way that the ending is written with the discussion by Franklin and Wilkins of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is sheer brilliance by the playwright Anna Ziegler.
Come, poor babe: I have not heard, but not believed- The spirits o’ the dead May walk again.
(The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare)
Through this play, the spirit of Rosalind Franklin lives on, and hopefully now people will give her the recognition she deserves. Regret, hope, equality. These are the feelings and themes which run throughout the play. But with regret comes the knowledge that you can’t change the past. And if Rosalind Franklin hadn’t worked so hard and been so focused and short-tempered with Wilkins, then Photograph 51 might never have been taken, Wilkins might never have shown it to Watson and Crick, and the structure of DNA might never have been discovered. Let’s just hope that her memory and story continue to inspire scientists, both male and female, so that important breakthroughs in science can continue to be made everyday.
“ROSALIND: It’s strange, you know. That I can’t remember who played Hermione.
WILKINS: No…I can’t either. Not for the life of me.
ROSALIND: I suppose she simply didn’t stand out. And that’s that.
(Photograph 51, Anna Ziegler)