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“The instant I saw the photograph my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race.”
Welcome to the Michael Grandage Company’s production of Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler
Does Rosalind Franklin know how precious her photograph is? In the race to unlock the secret of life it could be the one to hold the key. With rival scientists looking everywhere for the answer, who will be first to see it and, more importantly, understand it?
Anna Ziegler’s extraordinary play looks at the woman who cracked DNA and asks what is sacrificed in the pursuit of science, love and a place in history.
‘I read Photograph 51 and liked it instantly. Theatrically, it was constructed rather like a thriller. It’s a true and terrible story of injustice, in which this woman scientist, Rosalind Franklin, who was operating entirely in a man’s world, found herself competing in a race to discover "the secret of life". Nobody knew how DNA was constructed and she took a series of X-ray photographs, of which number 51 was the clearest, and it enabled scientists to see how the structure of DNA worked for the first time. The photograph she took showed DNA to be made up of a double helix and it enabled two scientists in particular, Francis Crick and James Watson, to build a model based on that information. Both men went on to win the Nobel Prize. Rosalind Franklin died young but her research and her photographs are now believed to have played a significant part in the discovery. It’s thrilling to tell her story on stage for the first time.’ Michael Grandage
After the devastation of World War II, amidst the rubble of cleared bombsites, scientists at the country’s leading universities attempt to discover the building blocks of life itself: DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid). At King’s College in London, a determined and dedicated doctor specialising in X-Ray Crystallography – Rosalind Franklin – has just joined the staff, working closely with Maurice Wilkins.
But it is a difficult relationship from the start. Rosalind, a serious-minded and independent professional, finds the reserved and rather pompous Maurice infuriating, particularly in his reluctance to recognise her credentials. He, in turn, finds her forthright manner combative, only exacerbating his natural awkwardness around women. The pair struggle to forge an alliance and share their findings, with Rosalind feeling increasingly isolated – a lone woman in a man’s world.
Meanwhile at Cambridge University, Maurice’s old university friend and fellow scientist, Francis Crick, has teamed up with an ambitious and brash young doctor, James Watson. Together they have joined the race to unlock the secret of life, but they can’t do it alone… They need Rosalind’s expertise, as demonstrated in her photographs, to prove their hypothesis.
Who will find and recognise the vital piece of evidence needed to win the race? And at what price, both professional and personal, will victory come?
Director - Michael Grandage
Set & Costume Designer - Christopher Oram
Lighting Designer - Neil Austin
Composer & Sound Designer - Adam Cork
Casting Director - Anne McNulty CDG
Wig & Hair Designer - Christine Blundell
Production Manager - Patrick Molony
Associate Production Manager - Kate West
Company Stage Manager - Howard Jepson
Deputy Stage Manager - Sharon Hobden
Assistant Stage Manager - Georgia Bird
Dialect Coach to Ms Kidman - Sandra Frieze
Voice Coach - Zabarjad Salam
Props Supervisor - Celia Strainge
Costume Supervisor - Anna Josephs
Head of Wardrobe - Charlotte Stidwell
Head of Wigs & Make-Up - Sophie Finch
Deputy Head of Wardrobe - Amanda Wilde
Associate Director - John Haidar
Associate Set & Costume Designer - Lee Newby
Anna Ziegler’s plays include The Last Match (upcoming at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, CA and City Theatre in Pittsburgh, PA), Boy (upcoming at Keen Company/Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City), A Delicate Ship (The Playwrights Realm, August-September, 2015 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, New York City/Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park), Another Way Home (upcoming in Washington DC at Theater J; Magic Theatre, San Francisco, CA), Dov and Ali (Theatre503; The Playwrights Realm), The Minotaur (Rorschach Theatre; Synchronicity Theatre) and BFF (WET Productions at the DR2 Theatre, New York City). She has been commissioned by The Manhattan Theatre Club, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Virginia Stage Company and New Georges. Her plays have been developed at The Sundance Theatre Lab, The O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, The Williamstown Theatre Festival, New York Stage and Film, The Araca Group, Old Vic New Voices and Soho Rep’s Writer/Director Lab, among others. Anna is a graduate of Yale College and holds an MA in Dramatic Writing from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.
Associate Director John Haidar discusses the legacy of Photograph 51 and explains why it led to the discovery of the DNA double helix
Photograph © King’s College London Archives
This is Photograph 51.
It was the latest in a series taken by Rosalind Franklin and her PhD student, Ray Gosling, in the basement of the Biophysics Unit at King’s College London in May 1952. Described by the eminent physicist, J.D. Bernal, as ‘the most beautiful X-ray photograph of any substance ever taken’, this image captured, for the first time, the basic building blocks of every living thing. Before this, scientists had been using the term, ‘gene’, as a codeword for the smallest unit of genetic information passed down from one generation to the next. In fact, they had no idea what one looked like or, consequently, how it did its job. As a result, the significance of Photograph 51 in the story of genetics is incomparable, a catalyst for countless advances in biology, medicine, and paleontology for over half a century.
In biology, function follows structure; that structure dictates function. In pursuit of the structure of DNA – a molecule too small to decipher using regular photography – Franklin and Gosling used a technique called X-ray diffraction. A fibre of DNA was fixed to a support, sealed in a camera in front of a piece of photographic film, and bombarded with X-rays. It was a process that required meticulous patience and skill: Franklin ran exposures for over 100 hours, constantly bubbling in hydrogen gas to control humidity and performing all of her calculations by hand. (Nowadays, scientists take thousands of images from different angles and digitally build up a three-dimensional image of the structure.) Conversely, Francis Crick and James Watson did none of their own experimentation, instead creating cardboard models with each new piece of information they gathered from data being collected by others within the scientific community.
Within such a camera, as in a microscopic pinball machine, X-rays ricochet off molecular structures in their path and diffract, or scatter, in different directions. As they exit the molecule, the X-rays leave behind a pattern on the photographic film, which, when developed, reveals itself to the photographer. When Maurice Wilkins showed Watson Photograph 51, of the hydrated ‘B’ form of DNA, the 23-year-old American’s theory that the structure was a helix, an extended spiralling chain, was confirmed. The laws of physics assert that X-rays moving through any helical shape must scatter at a 90-degree angle to the helix, creating an ‘X’ shape, as seen here. Watson immediately recognised this telltale sign, famously doodling it in the margin of his newspaper on the 50-mile train journey back to Cambridge.
Above, below, and either side of the ‘X’ are four distinctly defined white diamonds. These show us that the central ‘X’ repeats, since we can see the halves of other ‘X’ structures to the left and the right, which are different DNA helices. The diamonds above and below the central ‘X’ are narrower, suggesting the strand is continuous. Finally, the two arms of the central ‘X’ are checkered at regular intervals, meaning that they appear as a series of dark blotches emanating from its centre. By analysing the placement of the blotches in addition to the distance of the DNA fibre from the photographic film, Crick and Watson were able to determine the structure of the molecule and, crucially, its function. These evenly-spaced markings correspond to pairs of bases – either adenine with thymine or cytosine with guanine – and indicate that DNA regularly twists in a kind of spiral staircase, in which the bases form the stairs.
If we look closely, there are ten blotches on each arm of the central ‘X’ before we reach the blurred area on the vertical axis, meaning there are ten pairs of bases stacked on top of each other in each turn of the helix. In fact, one of the blotches is missing – the fourth if you count out from the centre. This occurs when two strands, a so-called ‘double helix’, cross each other, at which point diffracted X-rays cancel each other out on the photographic film. This was (literally) a missing piece of the puzzle, a vanishing point that escaped Rosalind Franklin. Having taken Photograph 51, she didn’t turn her attention to it until the following year, deciding instead to focus on the less hydrated ‘A’ form of DNA. By that time, Crick and Watson were about to make the invisible visible via the discovery that would yield the secret of life.
The Dark Lady Of DNA
Brenda Maddox’s biography of Rosalind Franklin paints a vivid portrait of a remarkable woman dedicated to her life’s work – as revealed in these extracts
At the age of six, Rosalind Franklin’s aunt described her as ‘alarmingly clever’. The phrase has a modern resonance inaudible in 1926.
Having been a sickly child, the bracing air of the Channel coast was the reason for sending Rosalind to boarding school. Her dispatch from the family nest coincided with the birth of the Franklins’ fifth child, Jenifer. Poignant letters show Rosalind would have liked the pleasure of watching her sister grow up and that she longed for home, but accepted exile with the brisk alertness she brought to life with three brothers. Driven in on herself, she used her intelligence not to show emotion.
‘All her life, Rosalind knew exactly where she was going,’ according to her mother, ‘and at the age of 16, she took science for her subject.’ That she should have been so clear in her intention suggests that, by the age of 16, Rosalind realised what Albert Einstein gradually learned about himself: a scientist makes science, ‘the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find peace and security which he can’t find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience’. Einstein offered this analysis in 1918 celebrating the award of a Nobel Prize to Max Planck. He proceeded to describe scientific research as, ‘akin to that of the religious worshipper or lover; daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or programme, but straight from the heart’. After entering Newnham College, Cambridge, Rosalind wrote at the top of the first page of her notebook, ‘What is a crystal?’ Getting ever deeper into crystallography, she joined the small band of the human race for whom these infinitesimal specks of matter were as real and solid as billiard balls.
Nevertheless, Rosalind’s interest in nothing but science concerned her father, Ellis Franklin, who believed it had taken the place of her religious belief. She sent him a declaration: ‘Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. I agree that faith is essential to success in life, but I do not accept your definition of faith. In my view, all that is necessary is the belief that by doing our best we come nearer to success and that success in our aims – improvement of the lot of mankind – is worth attaining.’ This humanistic credo came close to a renunciation of her Jewish faith. But, according to her sister, Rosalind was ‘always consciously a Jew’, a proponent of loyalty to family, belief in the importance of knowledge, and the virtue of hard work.
Cambridge, in spite of the war, did almost everything for her that a good university should. It changed her life, giving her both a profession and a personal philosophy. What three years at Cambridge did not do was end an astonishing ignorance about sex. Rosalind confessed to her cousin, Irene Franklin, she had never been kissed. The talk turned to having babies. The cousins discovered that, although each knew how a baby was born, neither knew how the ovum was fertilised. (A few months later, Irene informed Rosalind her fiancé had enlightened her. Rosalind was wiser too. She had asked a medical student.) But such things were remote from her mind.
The post-war world saw the admission of the first women to the Royal Society – for three centuries the citadel of the British scientific elite – 43 years since the Society threw out the nomination of the first to be proposed on the grounds that, as a married woman she was not a legal person and, hence, could not be a Fellow. The first half of twentieth-century science had belonged to physics, with the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics and nuclear fission. The second half of it would belong to biology. The secret of the gene – how our hereditary characteristics pass from one generation to another – was the hottest topic in science. That is where things stood when Rosalind arrived at King’s College London, on 5 January 1951.
A photograph taken on 2 May 1952 showed a stark ‘X’ of black stripes radiating from its centre. It was the clearest X-ray picture ever taken of a ‘B’ form of DNA. Rosalind numbered it ‘Photograph 51’ and put it aside, to return to the puzzle of the ‘A’ form. She had every reason to continue interpreting patterns, but refused to verify a helix without gathering more proof. Everything in her education had taught her to be absolutely sure of her facts before presenting them to the world. This lack of intuition would prove to be her Achilles heel. Scientific discovery is not creativity in the sense artistic composition is. ‘Science differs from other realms of human endeavour,’ explains Walter Gratzer [Emeritus Professor in Biophysical Chemistry at King’s College], ‘in that its substance does not derive from the activity of those who practice it.’ If Beethoven had not written his Ninth Symphony, no one would have done. However, if Watson and Crick had not discovered the double helix of DNA, others would have found it, and probably not long after.
‘Concerning Rosalind,’ Maurice Wilkins wrote to James Watson in 1966, ‘is there any mention in your book that she died?’ The book was The Double Helix, Watson’s candid account of the discovery. She is ‘Rosy’, the termagant who hoarded data she could not comprehend. As the decades have gone by, Watson has been forced to consistently defend himself against its publication. This unease may derive from his use of Rosalind’s experimental data behind her back, never telling her openly, even in the subsequent years of knowing her. Neither did Francis Crick. A footnote to a 1954 paper reads: ‘Information was kindly reported to us prior to publication by Drs. Wilkins and Franklin. We are heavily indebted in this respect to the King’s College group. Without this data, the formulation of our picture would have been unlikely, if not impossible.’
Rosalind Franklin did not have her eyes on the Nobel Prize. Nor did she worry about having been outrun in a race that no one but Watson and Crick knew they were running. She died proud of her international reputation both in coal studies and virus research, and of her list of published papers that would do credit to any scientific career, let alone one that ended at the age of 37. Rosalind knew her worth. With the prospect of going on to further significant achievement and, possibly, personal happiness, she was cheated of the only thing she wanted: the chance to complete her work. The lost prize was life.
Collated excerpts taken from Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox (Harper Perennial).
The Building blocks of life by Christopher Oram
Capturing both the post-war conservatism of the time as well as the sense of discovery, set designer Christopher Oram talks about the real-life inspiration behind his re-imagining of Rosalind’s world
Photography: © King’s College London Archives
One of the great joys of being a stage designer is the opportunity it affords to research and learn new subjects with each job one undertakes, and the story behind the discovery of DNA proved to be no exception.
The laboratories where Rosalind Franklin pursued her work when she returned to London from Paris were located beneath the quad in the King’s College campus next to Somerset House on the Strand. The building had been extensively damaged during the war, and so the labs were being newly constructed at the time she conducted her research. With an eye to dramatic timing, the laboratories are currently being relocated and the site redeveloped, as revealed in a recent visit. But amongst the photographs of the site in the archives there were several evocative black and white images showing the quad and the extensive bomb damage it received in wartime. The photographs show the surrounding buildings relatively unscathed though still coated in years of soot and grime from the pre-clean-air London smog, but in the centre of the pictures the ground is ripped open and the vaulted brick arches that supported the floor of the quad stand exposed like the ribs of a wounded animal.
A conversation with one of the physicists there confirmed my previous research, that generally the laboratories are preferred to be located underground where external stimulation is minimised, and atmospheric conditions kept stabilised. The irony of the exposed lower levels of the building in the photographs was not lost on me. The piles of brick rubble, the building blocks of the destroyed architecture, resonated in my mind with the research team’s search for the very building blocks of life itself.
Another element that had struck me on my recent visit to the site was the imposing sense of masculinity of the surrounding buildings, their classicism, the rigour of the repeated lines of windows, both arched and rectangular, the relative lack of detail. All these elements made me acutely aware of how Rosalind might have felt as she arrived from the relative freedom of post-war Paris to the more conservative world of British post-war academia.
The play is about singular ambition, the taking of a photograph, and the discovery it inspires. Although the personalities involved were complex, and the relationships often fractious – and it is set against a background of post-war sexism, scientific elitism, and intellectual snobbery – I felt that I wanted to represent the extraordinary achievement of the team in the design as well.
The actual playing area, Rosalind’s laboratory, became situated at its centre, in the semi-destroyed vaulted brick arches of the rubble of post-war London. But if the surround represented the world in which Rosalind was working, then the floor of the set itself would represent the extraordinary discovery. And so it becomes an entirely under-lit Perspex-tiled floor, so that the space can glow like a photographic lightbox, representing the discoveries made there that would go on to build the entirely new and scientifically advanced world.
Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler (Oberon Books, 2015)
The text of MGC’s 2015 production of the play at the Noël Coward Theatre.
Compiled by Associate Director John Haidar
The following books were consulted in preparation for MGC’s production of Photograph 51:
Authier, A. Early Days of X-Ray Crystallography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)
Bernal, J.D. The Freedom from Necessity (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, 1949)
Brown, A. J.D. Bernal: The Sage of Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)
Cooper, H. and Morrison, P. A Sense of Belonging: Dilemmas of British Jewish Identity (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991)
Crick, F.H.C. What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989)
Davies, K. Cracking the Genome (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001)
Ferry, G. Max Perutz and the Secret of Life (London: Pimlico, 2014)
Glazer, A.M. and Thomson, P. Crystal Clear: The Autobiographies of Sir Lawrence and Lady Bragg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)
Glynn, J. My Sister Rosalind Franklin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)
Hager, T. Force of Nature: Life of Linus Pauling (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996)
Hargittai, I. and Hargittai, M. In Our Own Image: Personal Symmetry in Discovery (New York: Kluwer Academic, 2000)
Janeway, E. Man’s World, Woman’s Place: A Study in Social Mythology (London: Michael Joseph, 1971)
Judson, H.F. The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology (London: Jonathan Cape, 1979)
Maddox, B. Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA (London: Harper Collins, 2002)
Overbye, D. Einstein in Love: A Scientific Romance (London: Bloomsbury, 2001)
Pauling, L. General Chemistry (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1970)
Perutz, M.F. I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists and Humanity (New York: Cold Spring Harbor Press, 2002)
Quinn, S. Marie Curie: A Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995)
Ripley, M. Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code (New York: Harper Perennial, 2011)
Sayre, A. Rosalind Franklin & DNA (New York: Norton, 1975)
Schrödinger, E. What Is Life? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1944)
Shearer, B.F. and Shearer, B.S. Notable Women in the Life Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary (London: Greenwood Press, 1996)
Sime, R.L. Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996)
Watson, J.D. DNA: The Secret of Life (London: Arrow, 2004)
Watson, J.D. The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (New York: Athenaeum, 1968)
White, M. Rivals: Conflict as the Fuel of Science (London: Secker and Warburg, 2001)
Wilkins, M.H.F. The Third Man of the Double Helix (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)
Compiled by Associate Director John Haidar for rehearsals
Unhydrated configuration of the DNA molecule.
Compound, derived from purine; one of the four constituent bases of nucleic acids.
Parallel, but moving in opposite directions.
The smallest particle of a chemical element that can exist.
Hydrated configuration of the DNA molecule, as seen in ‘Photograph 51’.
Molecular substance that will neutralise an acid, but that does not dissolve in water.
Thread-like structure of nucleic acids and proteins found inside the nucleus of most living cells, carrying information in the form of genes.
Branch of science concerned with the structure and properties of crystals.
Accelerator in which charged sub-atomic particles are propelled in spiralling paths by the use of a constant magnetic field.
Pyrimidine derivative compound; one of the four constituent bases of nucleic acids.
Deoxyribonucleic acid: a self-replicating material that is present in living organisms as the principal constituent of chromosomes and the carrier of genetic information.
List of things to do.
(Informal term for) a unit of heredity that is transferred from a parent to offspring and is held to determine the inherited characteristic(s).
An object having a three-dimensional shape like that of a wire wound uniformly in a single layer around a cylinder, as in a spiral staircase.
Red protein responsible for transporting oxygen in the bloodstream.
Feeling of intense indignation.
1732-1799. Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in the American War of Independence (1775-1783) and first President of the United States (1789-1797).
Pyrimidine derivative compound; one of the four constituent bases of nucleic acids.
Replacement of complex molecules in a crystalline structure by less complex ones, usually a heavy metal. Although the chemical make-up changes, its crystal form does not. As such, it may be possible to decipher its inner workings via X-ray diffraction.
1905-1984. British physicist and biophysicist, credited with radical improvement of the cavity magnetron, an essential component of radar and, as such, a key to Allied victory in World War II; Head of Physics at King’s College London (1946-1970).
1890-1971. Australian-born British physicist and X-ray crystallographer; discoverer of the Bragg Law of X-ray diffraction in 1912; along with his father, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1915; Cavendish Professor of Physics (1938-1953).
1901-1994. One of the founders of the study of quantum chemistry and molecular biology; awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962; Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Caltech (1936-1958).
Simple board game in which players move counters by throwing dice.
Molecule containing a very large number of atoms.
US government-led research and development project – 1942-1945 – producing the first nuclear weapons during World War Two, including those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A group of atoms bonded together, representing the smallest fundamental unit of a chemical compound that can take part in a chemical reaction.
Single molecule, capable of combining with other molecules.
Complex organic substance present in living cells, such as DNA, whose molecules consist of many nucleotides linked in a long chain.
Compound consisting of a nucleoside linked to a phosphate.
Scientific study of sight and the behaviour of light, or the properties of transmission and deflection of other forms of radiation.
Prose romance written by English author, Robert Greene, in 1588. Greene, in turn, may have based the work upon Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale. Greene’s story contains darker elements – Pandosto commits suicide out of grief after causing the death of his son and wife and falling in love with his daughter – which Shakespeare lightened for his comic purposes in The Winter’s Tale.
West End theatre located on Charing Cross Road (opened on 24th September 1930).
Organic compound of phosphoric acid in which the acid is bound to nitrogen in a way that permits useful energy to be released, as in metabolism.
Nitrogen-based organic compound consisting of a large molecule composed of long chains of amino acids; an essential part of living organisms, especially as structural components of bodily tissues, e.g. muscle, hair, collagen, enzymes, and antibodies.
A double-ringed, colourless, crystalline ‘parent’ compound of the nitrogen bases, adenine and guanine, which may be derived from it.
A single-ringed, colourless, crystalline ‘parent’ compound of the nitrogen bases, cytosine and thymine, which may be derived from it.
Rudolf Signer’s high-quality extraction of DNA from a calf thymus gland, collected in 1950, and distributed after a meeting at the Faraday Society to those researchers, including Maurice Wilkins, who expressed an interest.
3,742 ft (1,141 m) mountain peak in the Norwegian Alps.
Phrygian King from classical mythology condemned to remain in the underworld, chin-deep in water, with fruit-laden branches hanging above his head: whenever he tried to drink or eat, the water and fruit receded out of reach.
Excessive confidence or boldness; audacity.
Compound, derived from purine; one of the four constituent bases of nucleic acids.
Tobacco Mosaic Virus
Single-stranded RNA virus occurring worldwide that causes disease in plants, such as tobacco and tomato, especially of the nightshade family.
‘Vous me flattez plus que je ne mérite’
(French) ‘You flatter me more than I deserve.’
Scattering of X-rays by the regularly-spaced molecular structure of a crystal; useful in deciphering information about the structure of the crystal.
A scientist in her 30s
‘White, Jewish, British, brilliant and always on her toes, doesn’t suffer fools.’
A scientist in his 30s or 40s
‘White, British, formal and polite, Rosalind’s sparring partner and equal, a wounded, gentle soul but not bumbling or buffoonish. Bewildered when his cluelessly patronizing attempts at kindness towards Rosalind are rebuffed. A man who’s had trouble understanding women all his life. A little haughty when it comes to intellectual matters, and the opposite around matters of the heart (but a certain level of decorum stops him from examining this even on his own).’
A scientist in his early 20s
‘White, American, all confidence, arrogance, most of all hunger and drive. He is not without humour but is blunt and sharp-tongued. When he is sure of something he will stop at nothing to get it, and he has a very wide-ranging moral code (or lacks one entirely). He’s a genius and knows it. But he’s odd and nerdy too – he would not easily pick up a woman in a pub – a sore subject and perhaps what he needs to make up for with scientific excellence.’
A scientist in his 30s or 40s
‘White, British, very proper, not unkind, brash, good with the ladies, a philosopher, likes to be the centre of attention, cracking jokes. A ringmaster. He is not as openly driven as Watson but also has a greater need for success. He’s been at it longer and knows what it is to feel one is failing at one’s life pursuit. He and Watson have terrific chemistry; they enjoy each other immensely.’
A scientist in his 20s or 30s
‘White, Jewish, American, open and affable, honest, incredibly smart but humble. A touch naïve, perhaps – it would not occur to him that merit wouldn’t be rewarded. A graduate student with a true wonder about the world, who wears his heart and soul on his sleeve.’
A scientist in his 20s
‘White, British, awkward, endearing, sweet. A graduate student who lacks self-confidence and is always stuck in the middle of two feuding mentors.’
Associate Director John Haidar provides a week-by-week summary of rehearsals for Photograph 51
On the first day of rehearsals for Photograph 51, the entire company gathers for the ‘Meet and Greet’ in the rehearsal room. This allows everyone involved in the production a chance to get together and begin forging the various collaborations that will develop over the coming weeks and months.
Christopher Oram guides us through the intricacies of the model box for his set design. The play is full of vivid images and we’ll spend as much time discussing these as we will anatomising the truths (and falsehoods) we discover about the characters themselves. In addition, we have adorned one of the rehearsal room walls with a photographic tapestry, encompassing a vast spectrum of references to map the world in which the discovery of the double helix unfolds.
Anna Ziegler tells us that, when she first started working on the play, she was commissioned to interweave the lives of three scientists, however, such was her fascination with Rosalind Franklin’s story, that she decided to write this new play with her as its focus. Though we enter into the race for the structure of DNA via a prism of scientific endeavour, Anna has a forensic sensibility for the all-too human relationships at the heart of the drama. It’s about the loneliness of science – the numbers and figures and measurements and images – for the small band of innovators for whom, as Rosalind’s biographer, Brenda Maddox, writes, ‘these infinitesimal specks of matter were as real and solid as billiard balls'.
Director Michael Grandage outlines his process for rehearsals. It’s exceptionally clear and involves getting the cast on their feet as soon as possible, allowing them to inhabit the play physically as well as intellectually and emotionally. As we move through the week, we ‘sketch’ the entire piece, relying on the actors’ instincts to realise the laboratories of King’s College and Cambridge University. Many of those who were involved emerged from the ruins of wartime – Francis Crick worked for the Admiralty, whilst Maurice Wilkins was part of the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – turning away from the science of death to the science of life.
The week concludes with a visit to the archives of King’s College, London, and the underground laboratories frequented by the biophysicists of the time. We hold the original glass plate of Photograph 51, taken on May 2nd 1952, in our hands and, there, touching from a distance, are Rosalind Franklin, Don Caspar, Francis Crick, Ray Gosling, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins.
Staging a play with no scenic breaks and few stage directions is a relatively new and altogether welcome experience for me, having (until recently) worked fairly regularly with plays from the Jacobean repertoire. It allows – or even compels – a Creative Team to conjure a visual and a sonic world that’s just as important as the linguistic one.
The invention of a theatrical language has been at the forefront of our minds this week as we continue to excavate Photograph 51, digging down into the lives of its characters and their often fractious relationships to one another. The more we examine them, like the photograph at the centre of this story, the more they reveal about themselves. And, in parallel with crafting various modes of speaking, the actors have been busy translating the verbal into the physical. As we sketch their journeys through the text, they begin to inhabit the lyricism of Anna’s play. What this means is that one character can stand onstage and be in the same place and time as another character or, conversely, isolate themselves in their own stories, the ones they want to tell. In this play, mutually exclusive realities exist onstage. The idea of someone being alive and dead at the same time, for example. It’s pure theatricality in its blend of naturalistic and non-naturalistic elements.
Having made broad brushstrokes in the first week, the actors now have a strong foundation of each scene, which we’ve started to decipher in detail to shape the narrative arc of the piece. As part of this process, our Voice Coach, Zabarjad Salam, has visited rehearsals to take the company through vocal warm-ups and dialect sessions.
It’s a story involving a lot of collisions and near-misses. We move from a work encounter between two people that might mean entirely different things to each of them, to a social gathering where someone is surrounded by other people and yet feels entirely alone. The one thing that unites the scientists within the world of this play is their increasing sense of being on the verge of something, locked in a heightened state of awareness as they orbit the discovery.
In the rehearsal room, there is no such thing as a needless question. Everyone in the company is a ‘yes’ person: ‘Yes, let’s see if that works... Yes, let’s try that... Yes, that’s the clearest storytelling!’ This breeds an infectious positivity as well as a willingness to fail, and then fail better. With set building underway elsewhere, our Stage Management Team has created a ‘mark-up’ with electrical tape, which simulates the design of the Noël Coward stage, allowing us to choreograph scenes precisely in advance of technical rehearsals in a few weeks’ time. There are also a few props now being filtered in: an X-ray machine, some microscopes and a lab coat or two.
The pace of things has stepped up a gear again this week. As the actors grow in confidence with their lines and the journeys of their characters, we explore the play once more in detail, refining the arc of each scene. As a result, the textual choices we are making are becoming increasingly clear. Anna’s writing has a very specific rhythm and, as such, has started to take on a new, more lyrical quality. In terms of blocking, however, it’s significant that the actors’ natural movements in the first week have informed so many of the staging choices we are now settling upon. This was a bit of a revelation to us all: that the collective instinct can show us so much about the story we’re trying to tell.
In parallel, the understudy rehearsals are in full swing. Our three actors – Lorna Stuart, Patrick Walshe McBride and William Troughton – are covering all six parts between them, so they have various characters to get to know and inhabit before we reach technical rehearsals in two weeks’ time. This is a key feature of rehearsals: in the unlikely event of one of the principal cast not being able to go on, their respective understudy will be ready to step into the breach. The process is the same as for Michael’s main rehearsals, but reduced in time, since they rehearse at the end of each working day and will need to be fully prepared by the time of our first performance.
Now that we have started to run consecutive scenes together, the cast are able to really listen to and engage with each other through the play’s ninety-minute running time. This is essential if we are to create a cohesive ensemble for the piece. The act of listening has been emphasised in more ways than one with the company’s visit to the Noël Coward on Monday. Each of the actors had an opportunity to test their projection onstage in the larger (and rather more beautiful) room in which they will be performing.
Putting on a play involves much more than simply rehearsing it. There are a vast array of people associated with this production, all of whom have been working tirelessly behind the scenes, whether it be in pursuit of set, sound, lighting, voice and dialect, costumes, wigs, or press and marketing. On that note, we’ve just finished editing our programme for the show and Michael, Nicole Kidman and Stephen Campbell Moore have been called for various interviews or photo-shoots to publicise the production to as diverse an audience as possible. Finally, across the Atlantic, Anna Ziegler is preparing to send the latest draft of the script for publication.
This is our final week in the rehearsal room and, with that, the return of Anna, fresh from the New York opening of her play, A Delicate Ship, and Adam Cork, our Composer and Sound Designer. Michael starts the week with an observation for the company: ‘If you’re playing Hamlet and you mess up Act One, you’ve at least got four acts left to convince the audience you’re any good. We don’t have that luxury here. Therefore, you have to be totally alive in every single scene of this ninety-minute drama. That’s what we need to hold onto as we move into this week and beyond.’ This, in turn, leads to questions about the nature of time and memory, which the play condenses and intensifies (respectively) via its helical interweaving of the people and places that it depicts. Many of these characters experience their own private revelation about the finite nature of their life and work and, as such, often retreat into memory, which is timeless. Until that is, the present finally catches up with them (and us). It’s a hint of melancholy, a colour without which the play would lose some of its intrigue.
Adam plays us some of the sound cues he has been working on and – in the space of a few days – Anna’s play seems to lift off the page and into the bodies of the six actors. Adam explains that he was inspired to write music that represented the intricacies of quantum mechanics (the study of particles on an atomic and sub-atomic level). As such, the score is delicate and precise in equal measure, adding an intangible, but highly expressionistic, touch to scenes firmly rooted in the labs of King’s and Cambridge. In many cases, dramatic action is seemingly born out of the music preceding it, acting as audible punctuation. Michael encourages the six actors to ‘surf’ the end of a refrain in order to propel themselves into the scene, ensuring a relentless energy and forward momentum throughout.
Midway through the week, we start to run the play as a whole, just for ourselves at first and then in front of members of the Creative and Production teams (who will be with us from the move into the theatre). At this point, costumes and, in the case of two characters, wigs are introduced to be able to conjure the onstage experience as accurately as possible. We run the play four times in total before the cast break for a well-deserved bank holiday weekend. After one more round of understudy rehearsals, our Stage Management Team start packing up the rehearsal room in preparation for the move to the Noël Coward. With that, our first four weeks of work draw to a close. Next up, we’re into technical rehearsals – where we will meet our set and lighting design for the first time – and dress rehearsals, before presenting Photograph 51 to its first audiences.
Two thirds of the way through Photograph 51, Ray Gosling explains that Rosalind Franklin was ‘two steps away’ from the discovery of the structure of DNA. At this point in the process, we are at a similar distance – prior to technical and dress rehearsals – from the production being open to the public.
Arriving at the Noël Coward Theatre feels like moving house. We have all become accustomed to our rehearsal room environment and so to make this transition seems like a giant leap forward. Nevertheless, to say that catching a first glimpse of Christopher Oram’s set design was exciting would be an understatement.
The actors have the evening to themselves whilst Michael, Christopher and our Lighting Designer, Neil Austin, investigate the ways of illuminating the crumbling arches and towering classical façade of King’s. The following morning, the cast assembles, along with the various departments of the Production Team, and we begin our first tech session with the play’s opening.
At times, Anna’s script is akin to a memory play, in that certain scenes are fluid and bleed into one another, which offers a relentless momentum to the storytelling as we move from Paris to London to Switzerland to Cambridge. What’s fascinating is that the timeline is not always linear, with characters existing inside and outside of their historical reality, allowing us to break the fourth wall and actively invite an audience into the story. In this way, we are playing with (and sometimes for) time and, as the twin dimensions of King’s and Cambridge reference and intersect one another, the theatrical metaphor of the double helix is never very far away: as Don Caspar describes it, ‘two chains running in opposite directions, a pair of endless spirals that work together but will never meet’. I remember, during the casting process, we would ask actors for their first impressions of the play. So many of them gestured towards its scenes intersecting seamlessly from one to another, without realising that they were, in fact, subconsciously referencing the structure of DNA itself!
The technical rehearsals last only two days, which is testament to the skill and dedication of our brilliant team of creatives, who band together to synthesise the most elegant combination of lighting, sound and movement with the acting that has already been, and continues to be, developed. Following this, we perform an open dress rehearsal to around 250 students of various drama schools. It is a great opportunity for the cast to perform to a larger audience – having until now only showcased their work to those directly associated with the production – and for this to be part of a progression that will culminate in a sold-out first preview in front of 872 people.
The following day, we arrive early to do some further work on certain scenes and then Michael talks to the actors before we break for dinner. That evening, the Creative Team take their seats in the auditorium and the cast perform Photograph 51 to its first paying audience. It’s heartening to see the actors take ownership of the space for the first time and immerse themselves in their characters many of whom we’ve now come to view as old friends, despite having still only spent a few weeks in their company.
The following previews will be a process of honing what works and refining what doesn’t in the same spirit of experimentation as we established in our very first week together. Although, in the words of Ray Gosling, Rosalind Franklin was only ‘two steps away’ from her solution, for us, no such thing exists. The production is never going to be ‘fixed’ or static – we work within certain parameters, but within those it’s our responsibility to maintain an absolutely direct contact with our audience and, hence, to keep the action alive in a way that’s never exactly the same from night to night. I’m convinced this is the reason why we continue to tell stories in the theatre.
Education Associate Dominic Francis provides an insight into the cast and Creative Team’s rehearsal process for Photograph 51
In his welcome and introduction to the cast and Creative Team of Photograph 51, director Michael Grandage suggests that this production will have a reach beyond the immediate arts community due to the play’s scientific content. In this regard, he comments, it’s similar to Frost/Nixon by Peter Morgan, which he directed at the Donmar Warehouse in 2006 – the play that centers on the famous television interview between presenter David Frost and former American President Richard Nixon. Both plays depict real-life people and events, events within recent living memory that impacted upon wider society. Of the people that feature in Photograph 51, it’s noted that both James Watson and Don Caspar are still alive.
Commenting upon the fractious relationships between many of the characters in the play, in particular Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, Michael highlights the need for harmony amongst the cast: ‘We’ve got to do almost the exact opposite to what happened at King’s College and in Cambridge, where we need to be collegiate and get on!’
Designer Christopher Oram then presents the model-box of the set – a subterranean world of top-secret laboratories and shadowy catacombs deep below the city. Reflecting upon the discovery of DNA itself, Christopher was drawn to the idea of ‘the building blocks of life coming straight from the rebuilding of London after the Second World War'. Piles of rubble collect round the bases of grimy, bomb-blasted pillars with arches piled one on top of the other. Contrasting this is a brightly-lit floor divided into neat squares, immediately suggesting the sterility and precision of scientific endeavour. Sharing his initial thoughts about staging, Michael comments, ‘I’ve got a feeling it might be everyone on stage throughout'.
Once Christopher has finished, all the personnel who’d gathered for the initial ‘Meet and Greet’ depart, leaving the cast, key members of the Creative Team and Stage Management in the room to start rehearsals proper. Michael begins by talking briefly about the background to the production: ‘About three or four years ago, Nicole and I had a conversation about working together and I came back with lots of ideas for plays, but what Nicole really wanted to do was a new piece. It took three and a half years to find one.’
This was Photograph 51, which Michael describes as being about a ‘scientific injustice’ – the apparent omission of Rosalind Franklin from the official history of the discovery of DNA. ‘It’s a phenomenally beautiful human story about mis-connections,’ says Michael, reflecting on the relationships between the various characters, especially Rosalind and Maurice. ‘At times, it reads like a thriller.’ This element in particular, he believes, will appeal to audiences. ‘I think total engagement is possible here because people won’t know what happened to Rosalind Franklin. People won’t know the outcome of this race.’ Here he sounds a note of caution, in terms of foreshadowing the characters’ fractured relationships: ‘Let’s not enjoy creating a level of dysfunctionality.’ It’s a reminder of the old note about not playing the ending at the beginning – the audience has to witness the gradual deterioration for themselves.
Michael then turns to playwright Anna Ziegler, who begins by acknowledging, ‘I am not a science person – I was daunted by the idea of writing this play'. Before starting work on Photograph 51, she reveals she hadn’t heard of Rosalind Franklin. Anna accepted a commission from a small theatre to write a play about three female scientists, including Franklin, and ultimately felt that Rosalind deserved her own. ‘I liked the notion that a major scientific discovery was the result of failed human relations. To some extent, Rosalind’s own DNA got in the way. It’s a play about collaboration, or the failure to collaborate. What felt universal was the struggle to find the right balance in our lives.’ She questions whether it’s a ‘feminist’ play – ‘Some people say it is.’
Nicole Kidman, playing Rosalind, reflects on her own connections to the world of the piece – her father was a scientist and her mother a nurse: ‘I grew up in hospitals and science labs. They have distinct smells.’
Michael then outlines his rehearsal process, especially for the benefit of those who haven’t worked with him before. His preference is not to start with discussion around a table but to let it come from the action. He plans to get the play ‘on its feet’ from this afternoon and to start ‘sketching’ the scenes, like an artist beginning with an under drawing and gradually adding more detail.
Michael encourages everyone to be ‘physically present, not just intellectually present'. Next week, he says, they’ll return to in-depth discussion - ‘Once we’re comfortable in our own physicality. We will come to a good, serious analysis, bit-by-bit.’ By working in this way throughout the first week, says Michael, ‘we’ll have gone through the whole play by Thursday at 6pm'. At this early stage, he’s keen for the priority to be an exploration of story and characters. ‘This week use your script,’ Michael urges the cast. He doesn’t want them or him to be preoccupied by the need for prompts. He recommends the actors then take the first weekend to ‘absorb’ the work done during week one.
The rehearsal period for Photograph 51 is shorter than MGC’s previous productions – four weeks instead of five – but with a relatively short play and a small cast, the Creative Team think it enough time. Broadly outlining the four weeks, Michael explains that week one will feature talks and visits – including a presentation by Professor Brian Sutton later that day and a trip to the King’s College Archives on Friday - weeks two and three will focus on further analysis of the play and week four will be the one in which everything is put together. ‘Everyone should be completely prepared by the first preview,’ he reassures the cast. ‘You will know who you are and what your objectives are.’ That said, Michael encourages the actors to continue making discoveries about the play and characters throughout previews: ‘You can start to make more choices in front of an audience – see where things land.’
Turning his attention to the other elements of production, Michael explains that Composer and Sound Designer - and long-term collaborator - Adam Cork will be in rehearsals for the whole of week one. They’ll be having discussions about the development of the sound and music, which Michael describes as ‘almost like another character'. He confirms that the cast will at times be amplified ‘to help swell the atmosphere’ – those moments where the sound/music builds and it’s vital we can continue to hear the actors and their lines clearly. ‘It’s there for support,’ says Michael, who still encourages the cast to project. He will, he says, do some vocal work as a company, leading them through several exercises.
There then follows a talk by Professor Brian Sutton of King’s College, focused on ‘DNA and the Human Genome'. This is a version of a lecture he gives to students which outlines the fundamentals of X-Ray Crystallography and the discovery of the double helix, and provides a vital opportunity for the cast and Creative Team to ask questions in an attempt to clarify the science behind the play. Afterwards, Anna and the professor discuss some of its details during a break in the day’s work, the playwright making further factual revisions to the text.
The cast reconvenes after lunch and, reflecting on the talk, Michael highlights the professor’s passion for his subject, which he thinks particularly helpful for the actors: ‘It would be great for all of you, as scientists, to have different levels of enthusiasm.’
Turning to the first scene of the play, Michael suggests they ‘read a few pages and then stand it on its feet'. Both he and Anna have a few script changes to give the cast, mostly Americanisms that wouldn’t have been in common usage in 1950s’ England – for example, ‘OK'. There’s also some discussion about which ending they’re going to use, a slight variation in the closing two lines of the play.
At the start of rehearsals, Michael reassures the actors: ‘There’s no such thing as a stupid question. You shouldn’t even pass on asking something, even if it’s just for clarification.’ To aid in the cast’s understanding of the play, especially the science, Associate Director John Haidar has compiled a glossary of terms. There’s some discussion about the historical events versus the fictional ones in the play, which includes questions about time and place – ‘Where are we when we’re talking to the audience?’ queries one actor. Michael asks Anna if she can clarify this, before adding: ‘A present day, a present future that they all exist in together.’
This early exploration, says Michael, is about ‘trying to create a language for the play – directorially, sound, lighting, everything'. He thinks the lights coming up on Nicole talking directly to the audience at the start is a ‘wonderful way to open the production and break down the fourth wall'. Nicole wonders whether Rosalind should be addressing an audience to help ‘place’ the scene? ‘I think your relationship with us (the actual audience in the theatre) is critical,’ says Michael. He believes finding someone for Rosalind to address, a character with whom she has a relationship, would establish a connection with them that pre-exists Rosalind’s relationship with the theatre audience. Michael confesses he used to shy away from direct-address, but his 2008 production of Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov at the Wyndham’s Theatre marked a ‘turning point’ where he came to realise its full potential.
This leads to a brief discussion about the staging of the various letters in the play – Rosalind’s letter to her mother, Don’s correspondence with Rosalind, etc. ‘We will also clarify this moment with lighting,’ explains Michael, whose preference is for a simple solution. ‘I don’t want to get too static with two pages of a letter.’ It’s proposed that the reading of the letters be similar to a telephone conversation.
Referring to the phrase ‘the secret of life', Michael observes: ‘This is where poetry meets science.’ Meanwhile, Nicole’s curious why Rosalind acquiesces so early in her encounter with Maurice – ‘I don’t suppose it matters’ – having previously challenged him? This, and other questions, are discussed in some detail.
Michael also starts to remind the cast of basic stagecraft, commenting on their positioning on stage: ‘Don’t get in a line.’ His ear is attuned to the detail of the text, asking Edward Bennett, playing Francis Crick, to whom he’s referring with the ‘we’ in his line - ‘Well, that’s not what we heard’ - in a discussion about Rosalind’s reasons for joining the staff at King’s.
Returning to the beginning of the scene, he asks the cast to ‘start it with a beat'. He considers where Rosalind’s positioned at the top and thinks her using the microscope looks too settled. Nicole wonders how long it’s been since she started working there? How settled should Rosalind look? Michael reflects on this, before saying: ‘My instinct tells me that for the first picture you should be sitting.’ He suggests to Joshua Silver, playing Ray Gosling, that he’s ‘got two options… you could be clearing Wilkins’ place, or making your own space with Rosalind'. He also questions which other characters are present, whether directly in the scene or not: ‘Who’s on, in the background, witnessing the action?’
The question arises of when this scene takes place in relation to the others? ‘Is it the following week?’ asks Michael, ‘or has more time passed in order for relationships to have developed?’ He reflects on the overall shape of the piece: ‘Because this scene is echoed towards the end of the play, it would be nice if the physicality here echoed it too.’
Michael thinks an early encounter between Rosalind and Maurice should be played as a ‘corridor scene’ – ‘On their way to work.’ Afterwards, he observes: ‘I can’t speak for your characters, but for the audience it feels as if something has moved on.’ Bringing the first day’s rehearsal to a close, Michael congratulates the actors and adds: ‘Well done, you’ve made excellent progress today. Write down anything you’ve decided is working.’
Returning to the rehearsal room a week later, I note that the actors are now ‘off-book’ having learnt most of their lines. They’re evidently freer to interact with each other, allowing everyone to work in more detail, including Michael who ensures the cast are accurate on their lines and pronunciation. He asks Will Attenborough, playing James Watson: ‘Do you think you should have a little more incredulity about, “Her place in history”?’ Discussing the options available, Michael concludes: ‘Make a bigger choice, keep it alive.’
The scene is run again, Michael calling everyone to order with his usual - ‘One more time… Thank you.’ Afterwards, he seems pleased with the shape of it. ‘Certainly this is working on all levels.’ Stephen Campbell-Moore, playing Maurice, wants to make sure he understands all of the science. It’s a supportive environment with colleagues taking the time to explain the details to each other. ‘This is the scene in which the “A” and the “B” forms are named,’ suggests Michael. It transpires that Anna has made further revisions to the script following her discussion with Professor Brian Sutton and these are clarified.
Michael observes that in this scene with Rosalind, Maurice is not being allowed a way in. ‘This is a playwright showing just the essential elements of a breakdown in relations between Maurice and Rosalind. They’ve obviously just had a big bust-up and the author allows the audience to assume this is where we’ve got to. It’s good writing because it means we don’t have to go back to explain anything.’
During short breaks between scenes, the actors run lines amongst themselves, Michael occasionally clarifying the meaning of individual words or phrases. ‘What you just said makes sense. It’s whether you can make it make sense to us.’ Often he’ll share a thought with the cast: ‘Question… Since you’re all finding grace notes, what colour can we add to this particular moment?’
They run a short scene in which Maurice pays a social visit to his old friend Francis, plus James, in Cambridge. Afterwards, Michael comments: ‘You did that entirely conversationally. It was relaxed in a very believable way. Hold onto that. Write it in your scripts or you’ll forget.’ He considers the ‘business’ of the scene - buying drinks in the pub - and wonders if there’s a better solution to Francis exiting and re-entering with glasses: ‘I know when we get into the theatre that’ll mean you going into the wings and we won’t like that.’
Michael also listens carefully to the nuances in Jim Watson’s language, in particular his probing of Maurice regarding Rosalind’s findings – ‘So you really think it’s a helix?’ He counsels caution to both actor and character: ‘Find another way to manoeuvre into that, without it being a mallet over the head.’ Will Attenborough does it again and Michael responds positively.
He focuses on Francis and James’ observation and unfavourable critique of Rosalind. ‘We need to see Watson and Crick dissecting her,’ suggests Michael. ‘The enjoyment of that… What’s the attitude there? Can you turn up the colours?’ He makes sure the dialogue is rooted in the moment – ‘Go off what you’re seeing.’ Michael likes to consolidate the work at the end of a session: ‘We’ll just do that scene one more time so it’s in your bodies physically.’
While focused on the characters’ motivations, he also monitors the actors’ technique: ‘We’re just running away with the sentence there… Slow it down a little.’ He strives to make sure the storytelling is clear, particularly in terms of what the audience need to see and hear, saying of certain lines: ‘It follows on the heels of the previous one, it’s in the air with it.’
Next they look at the scene in which Francis and James present their, ultimately inaccurate, model of the structure of DNA to Maurice, Rosalind and Ray. There’s some discussion about how the model itself will be represented and its position on stage. ‘Everything in the production is abstracted in some form and so I’d like to achieve it with light so characters can walk into, around it and through it,’ suggests Michael. He highlights the challenge of this particular part of the play: ‘This is a difficult scene because we’re cutting into the heart of it.’ For Francis and James, this is a critical moment – ‘There’s a lot at stake for both of you.’
The actors run the scene again. Michael responds - ‘It’s getting better all the time. The only thing I don’t believe…’ And he returns to the characters’ inspection of the model: ‘They’re so detailed, you need to look at it very closely.’ Nicole asks if they can see a photograph of Watson and Crick’s ‘bad’ model and Associate Director John Haidar finds one online, which everyone gathers round to look at before playing the scene again.
Michael turns his attention back to Francis and James: ‘The overall thing here is that there’s two men in the room who are moderately nervous.’ He reminds Will and Ed to differentiate their responses to the others’ reaction – ‘Watson’s a different person to Crick and we must remember that. You’re not Watson and Crick like salt 'n’ vinegar.’
Exploring the response of Maurice, Rosalind and Ray to the model, Michael comments: ‘If we were doing the less subtle version of this scene, you three from King’s who have come to Cambridge would just laugh at it. That would help the audience understand.’ It’s agreed they take a moment to explore that version, which turns out to transform the scene. Michael suggests they hold on to it and use it. Focusing on the gravity of Rosalind’s reaction, and her general lack of interest in anecdotes and gossip, he then comments: ‘She’s fascinating in that respect. She’s almost humourless. She just wants the facts.’ Having run through the scene again, he takes time to praise the actors’ skill in putting it on its feet: ‘That was a glorious piece of instinctive staging from all of you.’
Following a conversation with Anna, Ed discusses a possible revision to the text, substituting the word ‘arse’ or ‘pillock’ for ‘prat’ in Francis’ dismissal of Maurice – ‘Even at university, Wilkins could be a patronizing prat.’ Michael’s agreeable, counseling Ed to ‘let the actor know it’s a funny line, but don’t let the character go there'. In the following exchange between Francis and James about the race to discover the secret of DNA, Michael observes: ‘Crick suddenly gets a bit saintly – “I don’t want to win…” ’ He wonders how that ought to be played. With these smaller scenes, featuring just two characters, Michael encourages the actors to use the whole space: ‘On a big stage, the wider you go, the more powerful it is. The air between you is the most potent thing you have and it’s more exciting to watch.’
He’s always careful to maintain a fidelity to the play’s setting, commenting with amusement to one actor: ‘That’s a very modern reading of “amazing”… You may just as well have said “amazeballs”! Can you give us a more 1950s’ version?’ This is the moment where Rosalind’s decisive photo, marking the turning point in all DNA research, is revealed. Michael observes: ‘The “Photograph 51” moment comes exactly halfway through our play.’ He wants to ensure it has the right quality, saying to the cast – ‘This moment has to be about tension not melodrama’.
Drawing the rehearsal to a close, Michael’s pleased with what they’ve achieved: ‘A good day. But it’s only a good day if you absorb what we’ve done, so that when we come back to it we can keep moving forward.’
The third week of rehearsals introduces a new pace. Returning to scenes previously covered, Michael and the cast explore each in more detail. They continue by looking at another exchange of letters between Don and Rosalind. Michael’s keen to ‘lift’ all of the correspondence within the play so that it finds its true place. He questions a moment in Don’s speech - ‘I just love… I mean does the X-ray camera ever seem like it’s just an extension of your own eye...’: ‘Do the three dots after “I just love” mean you can’t go on? It’d be great to try that and see how your character tries to move on.’
Michael’s keen to define each moment. Moving on to the following scene, in which Rosalind confronts Maurice for apparently claiming her findings as his own, he asks Nicole: ‘Could you come tight in on Ray’s line, “The helix was… beautiful” with your, “Flushed with pride, are we?” ’
The cast will run a section and then go back on it. ‘Well done, let’s do it again,’ says Michael. ‘Let’s, as they say, “practice it". It’s not wrong, it’s all in the right place.’ The atmosphere is concentrated, with actors questioning details while offering suggestions to help make a moment work – ‘Would you like it if I went upstage?’ Michael will consider the overall shape of the scene before adding his thoughts, prefacing his comments with, ‘I’d love it if…’ He’ll then make a suggestion to help define a specific moment. Here he asks Stephen to give his line, ‘I didn’t say it quite like that’ to Ray and not the audience. He also focuses on details in the text, making sure the lines are being delivered accurately – ‘X-ray diffraction’ not ‘diffractions’ – and that all pronunciations are English not American.
‘Very good, that’s the best yet,’ says Michael after another run through. ‘You were talking to each other.’ He focuses on the opening exchange between Don and Rosalind, asking Nicole: ‘Is there a moment you get hooked in the letter?’ She considers this: ‘I’m kind of listening the whole time, it’s cumulative.’ They do it again. At the end of the encounter between Rosalind and Maurice - her line, ‘Neither do I!’ – Michael says to Nicole: ‘I think that has to be a change of scene for you.’ He reminds the actors that such moments will be supported and enhanced by the other elements of production: ‘I can help you here. I can put in a moment, a transition – a light change – to help you breathe.’
Occasionally the Deputy Stage Manager, Sharon Hobden, who notes all of the blocking in her script, will remind the actors, if asked, of their positioning in previous rehearsals. Michael may also ask an actor about a choice they’ve made, such as a specific move: ‘Were you offering that to help time it? I think it’s better we get the rhythm right.’ The process is one of running and re-running a section in order to finesse it – ‘Let’s just do it and see what happens… That would work. Let’s do it again.’
The transition from this scene into the next, in which Rosalind shows Ray the increasing detail of her photographs, proves challenging. It’s set in the same place, the laboratory, an unspecified amount of time later and Nicole needs to get from Rosalind’s frustration and anger towards Maurice to her excitement over the images. Michael enlists the assistance of the other actors: ‘Stephen, you can help here with Maurice’s exit…’
He thinks the transition needs to be more marked – ‘There’s a much bigger beat there.’ Watching it again, Michael believes there’s a better version to be found. ‘It’s not so good at the end, it doesn’t quite rise to it. It deflates the anger - it releases the air and let’s the tension out. I missed the last three lines being a climax.’ He considers some earlier blocking: ‘I would like to re-instate your cross. It acts as a better swipe to the end of the scene.’ They rehearse it again. Michael is pleased with the results: ‘Yes, that works. It’s a real pressure cooker. I like that version, so unless you’re really desperate I don’t need to rehearse another one. Let me just perfect that.’
Working through the following exchange between Rosalind and Ray, in which they study the new photographs, there’s a decision to re-instate a cut line to help clarify the storytelling. Michael and the actors also discuss the science once more, to make sure everybody fully understands it. ‘We should just do that scene again,’ he says to Nicole and Joshua, ‘and know which lines you’re giving to each other.’ They run it again, following which Michael comments: ‘That was good, you were really on it, it really flowed.’ Of Ray, he observes: ‘Gosling partly is a comic device, which we, the audience, enjoy.’
Turning his attention to Don’s speech at the end of the scene, which marks the transition into the next, Michael encourages Patrick Kennedy to embrace Don’s thought-process about the two DNA forms and how he expresses that - ‘They’d been looking at one on top of the other, like… well, a man and women making love…’: ‘Enjoy that, let Don appreciate it, but don’t let it become only an analogy.’
The next scene depicts the conversation between Maurice, Francis and James in a pub in Cambridge, Maurice having visited them to get away from work in London and his strained relationship with Rosalind. ‘Can I ask a question?’ says Will Attenborough. ‘What has Maurice told us about her before coming?’ They discuss this before running the scene. Afterwards, Michael congratulates the actors: ‘You really know that very well and it’s starting to flow beautifully, just always avoid doing too much. It’s better when it’s simpler.’ Stephen wants to clarify the moment where Maurice ‘sees’ Rosalind while attempting to describe her to Francis and James. ‘Are you asking that we make sure the audience is clear she’s in your mind’s eye?’ says Michael. ‘Yes,’ replies Stephen and a note is made of this.
They then return to the scene in which Francis and James invite Maurice, Rosalind and Ray to Cambridge to see their DNA model. Recalling the earlier rehearsal, Michael comments: ‘This is the scene where we discovered that laughter is actually a big release.’ Thinking about the circumstances of it, he asks the actors: ‘Can we play that we’re just joining you at the beginning of the meeting.’ He also suggests that this scene presents a rare opportunity for Maurice and Rosalind to connect in their complete rejection of Francis and James’ flawed findings. He then asks Ed and Will: ‘Can you make sure your dejection happens in the moment? Don’t decide you're dejected before you are. It’s their rejection of your model that makes you d ejected.’ He encourages Nicole to ‘really humiliate them with that line, “DNA absorbs at least ten times more water than that"'.
Having run it again, Michael consults the cast on the developing scene - ‘Everyone OK with all that?’ - before releasing some of the actors early. He then works through several exchanges between Rosalind and Ray, including the moment he rushes in to show her Photograph 51 for the first time. To emphasise the excitement of the moment, Michael asks Joshua: ‘I wondered whether you’re breathless even?’
Focusing on Rosalind’s following speech, in which she relates the career advice of her father – ‘You must never be wrong. In once instance, you could lose all you’ve achieved…’ – Michael encourages Nicole to ground it in the moment of discovering the helix: ‘Relate that to the photo in that last line. You don’t need to look at it, just make that connection.’
Of Don’s next letter to Rosalind, which comes at the end of a particularly bitter exchange between her and Maurice, Michael comments to Patrick: ‘Remember, in the structure of the play, you’re a breath of completely different energy here.’
In addition to mining the text and the characters’ motivations, Michael remains consistently focused on stagecraft, commenting to actors: ‘A tiny technical thing, it would be nice if you could contrive to be downstage… Just make sure you’re front end on that line…’
Bringing the day’s rehearsal to a close, Michael praises the cast once more on their progress: ‘You’re starting to take ownership now. You seem to understand the territory with real confidence. Keep going.’
Halfway through the fourth week of rehearsals, run throughs of the whole play - in costume with props and music - begin. They start well, Michael comments to the cast afterwards: ‘The first run through is always interesting for a director because it gives them a sense of how the cast will behave at a first preview in front of the public. You are a company that rise to an occasion. I enjoyed watching you as a group, as a collective, take control of it.’
He proposes working for a couple of hours the following morning, before the next run through in the afternoon. ‘I’m going to do a series of “dos”…’ He then goes through his notes for the cast and crew, talking in general about scenes ‘landing', lines being ‘dropped’ (or missed or fluffed), ‘dips’ in which the ‘energy disappeared’ and the need to ‘punch-up’ moments - ‘At a level that’ll be good enough for the Noël Coward. At the moment, I can feel some things disappearing into the darkness at the back of the theatre.’
Some actors are asked to ‘fill in gaps’ by picking up cues, to punctuate certain words and lines and to increase volume, especially when a new element to the story is being introduced. This is particularly important, says Michael, for ‘getting under the overhang’ at the Noël Coward. His notes encompass blocking – ‘I still think that would be more devastating if it was more still’ – to the delivery of lines: ‘I want you to learn those lines as one thought. I’d like you to know what to do technically in your head before going with the emotion of it.’
Michael’s notes also invite discussion. To Adam Cork: ‘Can I ask, do you not think we need a new sound cue there?’ To two actors: ‘Do you think we need to put a handshake in there?’ Michael will always check the cast are happy to proceed: ‘Do I need to rehearse that?’
At the end of the session, he thanks the company again: ‘It was a wonderful run – you were all in it. You need that level of focus. Whatever you channeled today, you need to find that again. You can’t sit back with this play.’ Michael wants to ensure that the subsequent run throughs are productive for both cast and crew and ultimately ‘move forward for you'.