Above – Amber McMahon, Gareth Yuen & Garth Holcombe. Cover – Gareth Yuen & Amber McMahon. Photos – Teniola Komolafe

The double helix of race and gender discrimination is enthrallingly explored in Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51, the story of Rosalind Franklin, and her pivotal role in unlocking the structure of DNA.

Mid 20th Century science was still a bastion of boffins of the male gender and mostly Anglo Saxon. Rosalind Franklin was neither. A Jewish woman of talent, dedication and ambition, she was enticed back to England after working in France. The offer was a false pretence, a more subordinate role than she had envisaged and she bristled under such blatant inequality.

Franklin’s pioneering work using x-ray diffraction photography was integral in developing our knowledge of DNA, but a patriarchal plagiarism undoubtedly fostered a fierce independence and reluctance to collaborate. Photograph 51 grapples with the unjust consequences of the sidelining of her contribution whilst shining a spotlight on this relentlessly dedicated scientist.

The molecular structure of the predominantly male scientific community saw Rosalind as a Franklinstein, a bloodless spinster and a threat to the status quo.

Amber McMahon makes the, on first impression, charmless Franklin quite charming, excavating the inner life in nuance and subtle gesture. It’s a performance of flinty arrogance, an arrogance borne out of a driven personality in a society and a fraternity allocating her second class status.

Garth Holcombe as Maurice Wilkins is a brilliant antagonist, a tweedy wonk, stiff upper lip scientist, collegiate bonding undermined by prevailing chauvinism. 

The cut and thrust of the play is basically between these two characters, with support jousting by Toby Blome as James Watson, Robert Jago as Francis Crick, Jake Speer as Don Caspar and considerable jesting from Gareth Yuen as Ray Gosling

Emma Vine’s set and costume design is a triumph, clean but not clinical, the laboratory vibe splendidly evoked by a bench with microscope and a timbered wall tiered with apothecary drawers,  impeccably augmented by Trudy Dalgleish’s lighting.

Directed by Anna Ledwich with a clarity and pace that accesses the academic and scientific as well as mining the rich vein of humour that runs through Ziegler’s script.

Event details

Ensemble Theatre presents
Photograph 51
by Anna Ziegler

Director Anna Ledwich

Venue: Ensemble Theatre | 78 McDougall St, Kirribilli NSW
Dates: 2 Sep – 8 Oct 2022
Bookings: www.ensemble.com.au

Most read Sydney reviews

More from this author