Photograph 51
Justin Ridler

A snapshot in time

Anna Ziegler discusses her play’s explosion on the West End, and how her admiration for scientist Rosalind Franklin inspired her to tell this largely untold story.

By Sarah Corridon

Photograph 51, Anna Ziegler’s biographical play, had unlikely beginnings when a small theatre company, Active Cultures, in Washington D.C, commissioned Ziegler – for the sum of $500 – to write a play about three leading female scientists.

As Ziegler recalls, her agent at the time said, ‘Do not accept this commission, you’ll do a crazy amount of work, and no one will ever see the play.’ However, the young playwright felt she had nothing to lose and started studying her three female protagonists. As her research began, Ziegler was drawn to the story of one British chemist in particular – Rosalind Franklin.

‘Rosalind definitely got under my skin,’ Ziegler says. ‘As fascinating as I think the science is, that’s not what drew me to her. It was her character that hooked me. I felt a kinship to her. Even though I’m not a science-minded person myself, her single-mindedness, ambition and desire to do the work, even though she might never get recognised for it, is incredibly noble to me.’

As Ziegler’s research evolved, she discovered Franklin made significant scientific discoveries between 1953 and 1958; most notably when she captured an image entitled Photograph 51, which proved the double-helix structure of DNA. Yet, in post-WWII Britain, the almost exclusively male world of the British academics at Kings College posed an ongoing challenge to the young Jewish chemist and her work was never properly recognised.

In 1962, Franklin’s colleagues Maurice Wilkins, Francis Crick and James Watson, collected the Nobel Prize ‘for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.’ If Wilkins and his team didn’t have access to the crucial Photograph 51, this might not have been possible. However, by the time the award was announced, Franklin had passed away from ovarian cancer four years earlier, aged just 37. 

Ziegler decided to focus her play exclusively on Franklin, balancing her journey towards that major discovery with her experience as a forthright, self-confident, sometimes prickly, but unwaveringly determined woman in a world dominated by men. ‘I loved that Franklin was this incredibly real person with all these flaws. She had all these obstacles, but she was also an obstacle to herself, as so many of us are.’

There are several parallels between Franklin’s efforts to be recognised as a scientist and Ziegler’s pursuit to become a successful playwright, and their worlds were more closely aligned than Ziegler would have first imagined. ‘I definitely had an ‘ah-ha’ moment early on while rehearsing the play. It’s about collaboration and how difficult it can be working with other people. What we do in life is so governed by our ability to work with people who are different to us.’

Since the play opened in 2015, it’s had an incredible trajectory, snagging some of the world’s leading ladies to fill the shoes of Franklin herself, including Miriam Margolyes and Nicole Kidman. ‘The path this play has taken is shocking to me. I never imagined that it would end up on the West End.’

Yet Ziegler says even years after her play premiered at theatres in New York and Washington D.C. she was terrified she’d be discovered for getting the science wrong. ‘I was desperately nervous,’ she stressed. ‘I had science advisors and we were making changes up until a few weeks before we opened. I desperately wanted to please the science community.’

‘When I wrote this play, I genuinely believed it would be seen by about one hundred people, so I wasn’t that concerned…which was probably a good thing, otherwise I would have been in my head too much.’ However, Ziegler admits she will think twice before writing characters about real-life historical figures again, especially when they share the same names. ‘It is a heavy burden. You know you’re not going to get it one hundred per cent right. Even when you know a person, you can’t embody them and represent them fully. Of course you want to do them justice, so that was challenging.’

Rosalind Franklin’s family played a large role in bringing the production to life and have been incredibly supportive of Ziegler’s plight to tell their relative’s story. ‘Even if the character doesn’t completely capture who their aunt or sister was, there is an essence of her on stage and that’s appreciated.’

Now, upwards of 30 different productions of Photograph 51 have been performed in the last five years, including premieres in the US, UK, Italy, Japan and, from this November, Australia. The story bares a universality that Ziegler didn’t initially recognise. One of those universal themes centres around the role religion plays in the life of a scientist, and how the philosophies of science and religion can support each other, rather than work in opposition of each other. ‘In my heart, I feel that they can and do co-exist’, Ziegler says. ‘I’m not sure I can explain it or put any logic behind it, but I think they go hand in hand in their attempt to find meaning in the world. They both represent the same curious quest to find answers.’

Another unforseen outcome of Ziegler’s play, opening in commercial theatres around the world, was the strength of its feminist message that women in science are often overlooked by their male counterparts. Michael Billington of The Guardian wrote, ‘Anna Ziegler’s new play … asks: is science still sexist?’ Ziegler’s quick to explain that Rosalind Franklin did not think of herself as a feminist, ‘And I’ve been told she wouldn’t want to be thought of as a feminist icon’ she adds. ‘It’s hard for any of us to believe that she could have been so immune. I don’t think she truly was.’ But she was more focussed on getting the work done, Ziegler explains. ‘She didn’t want to be thought of as a woman in the lab, she just wanted to be recognised as a scientist.’

In regards to Wilkins, Watson and Crick taking the recognition for Franklin’s work, Ziegler thinks the case is complex. ‘I think there are a couple of complicated factors,’ she says. ‘There are probably very black and white cases of women’s work being stolen throughout history, but I don’t think this is one of those cases. It wasn’t ethical, but it also didn’t defy ethical terms of the time. For me, the play is less about righting a wrong and more about exploring a really interesting character.’

‘A lot of women have to fight to be remembered,’ Ziegler continues. ‘But it’s also ok to not stand out from the pack. You can still have enormous impact without standing out. ‘In fact,’ the playwright reflects, ‘it’s quite noble to do something impactful and not demand attention for it.’

Photograph 51 is playing at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio from 1 November until 14 December. 

Published on 16 October 2019

Explore More