Anna Ziegler’s award-winning play, Photograph 51, is currently running at the Noël Coward Theatre until 21st November. This extraordinary play looks at Rosalind Franklin, the woman who cracked the double-helix secret of DNA, and interrogates what is sacrificed in the pursuit of science, love and a place in history. Directed by Michael Grandage and starring Nicole Kidman, the production has attracted a huge amount of press attention. It has more than lived up to the hype, with wonderful reviews since its opening in September.
Below is a transcript of playwright Anna Ziegler in conversation with Heather Neil of TheatreVoice.com, in which Ziegler discusses her inspiration for Photograph 51, and her creative process. Down below you’ll also find a competition to win a signed copy of the play, as well as some of the great endorsements from all of you on social media. We love to read and share these, so keep them coming!
TheatreVoice.com: What was it about her [Rosalind Franklin] that so fascinated you? Obviously she has been allowed to drop out of history unfairly. Was that the main thing, or was it what she discovered?
Anna Ziegler: What I immediately loved about her was just how unique and interesting and complicated a character she was. And inherently tragic. I think the fact that she died so young and had so much potential – she was really considered by almost everyone just a brilliant scientist – man or woman— it’s that potential cut short which is still heart-breaking…what she would have gone on to do and discover. But I also found the circumstances she was in, and the way those perhaps created or triggered the personality that then clashed so fiercely with Maurice Wilkins at this particular moment in history, fascinating.
TV: You have a quotation from Horace Judson in the programme, about how the importance of the personalities of scientists are often overlooked, and that’s the nub of the play really, isn’t it? It’s about how personality, as well as brains, are responsible for what actually happens and comes out of research.
AZ: For me, it is absolutely. And I think I was also really taken by the metaphor of the double-helix itself, and the way it reflects so much what happened at this moment. Because the double helix is itself a pairing. It’s a pairing that works very well and creates life, and here we have this story of these two pairs: one that worked together – Watson and Crick – and one that did not. And it’s of course the successful pair that ends up discovering life in a very neat, beautiful kind of way. And the failure of the other pairing is I think also sort of reflective of – and I don’t understand the science well enough to explain it but – the DNA as two strands that work together, but they never actually touch. So there is this essential part of life that is about tenuous collaboration and how easily things can go wrong.
Photograph 51, taken by Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling
TV: You don’t have a science background, and you’ve got to get over to an audience – also most of whom won’t have a science background – what all the fuss was about. You’ve used ideas of beauty and pattern and so on, which we do understand. But it’s always so difficult putting science on stage. Was that the biggest problem?
AZ: I suppose when I started writing it, I just thought ‘well I don’t understand a lot of these concepts, so whatever I put on stage has to be simple enough that I can understand it!’ So it seemed to me if I was the average audience member I would just do my best to represent something I could basically understand. That being said, I think the play goes by really quickly. It’s a fast-paced play and I think a lot of people – and I would too – miss some of the science. Maybe it’s sacrilegious to say it, but I don’t think it matters all that much. It’s not about the science. As long as the science is there and creating an authentic backdrop essentially, then I feel like I’ve done my job. But it’s certainly been daunting and gratifying to have the response of real scientists, and I think most have said the science is accurate and comes across pretty authentically so I’ve been happy about that, I have to admit.
TV: It’s set in London in 1951-53, so was that something you had to think hard about? Getting the language and the behaviour right?
AZ: I did write it in America. But it’s really fun for me to write very much outside of my own experience and my own voice. So it appealed to that side of me—and it appealed in particular to my Anglophilic side. I had done a year of graduate school here in England after University in the States – I was at UEA in Norwich. And then I had a British boyfriend for a number of years, so I spent a lot of time in England when I was in my twenties, shortly before writing this play. So I think I at least absorbed some British sensibility. And I didn’t worry so much about it being in the 50s. As the play has evolved there have been certain lines that I’ve shifted a little bit if someone would say ‘oh that feels a little too modern’, but on the whole it was really trying to capture a Britishness that felt natural and not imposed. I don’t really think people have changed all that much. I think there are certain words that people used more back then than now but I don’t think people are hugely different.
(You can listen to the entire conversation with Anna Ziegler at TheatreVoice.com)
If you’d like to win a signed copy of Photograph 51, email firstname.lastname@example.org with your name & postal address, and we’ll add your name to the hat. Good luck!
Photograph 51 will run at the Noël Coward Theatre until 21st November.
The play text is available from Oberon Books.