In a time where women were still seen as domesticated objects, Dr. Rosalind Franklin whose work was central to the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA , RNA (ribonucleic acid), viruses, coal, and graphite was largely unrecognised during her life. In her short 30 something years of life, Franklin’s pioneering work using x-ray crystallographer has lead to one of the major historical breakthroughs in biology.
If that sounds very impressive, well her life and her work will be put on stage at the Ensemble Theatre. Inspired by this history and true events, “Photograph 51” will tell this story and show what the world looked like when it was fully dominated by men – in many ways, not too much different from the modern day. Starring Amber McMahon (STC’s Top Coat, The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race) as lead Dr. Rosalind Franklin, with her research partners played by Garth Holcombe (The Woman in Black, STC’s Orlando) as Dr. Maurice Wilkins, and Gareth Yuen (TV’s Hungry Ghosts, Power Rangers) as Ray Gosling, among other great cast members, “Photograph 51” appears more than just a theatre production, but it is an indicator that the movement for women’s rights and the movement of more women in STEM has come a very long way.
Another point of interest is that Gareth Yuen who is part of the leading cast, plays the character “Ray Gosling” who historically is a British Caucasian man and Franklin’s student, who took “Photo 51” which led to the discovery of the DNA double helix. Dr Maurice Wilkins ( played by Garth Holcombe) and other male scientists ended up getting the acknowledgement and the 1962 Nobel Prize for this discovery.
Back to Yuen. It is remarkable in Australian media and entertainment that culturally Asian actors get to take non-Asian roles. This was something Yuen spoke about with Being Asian Australian at a recent interview about the production and his role.
I do not know whether the decision to cast me an Asian actor into the role of Ray Gosling was specific or deliberate. It may have been discussion among the crew to approach the casting in a different way, though I am not sure how it all came about. But I think I stuck out and impressed the director Anna Ledwich during a Zoom meeting we had and after reading a few scenes it felt good and I think Anna saw something in me which she felt served the character of Ray well, Yuen said.
I think we are now in an interesting era of media and entertainments. There is a want and a need for more diverse characters and for diverse characters to play different roles. It is still at the starting line, but I think it is starting to change, and I hope I can play my character well and do justice to the production.
Yuen has been acting in Australia for a very long time, and been in the industry for over 30 years. He started off as a kid actor and followed his dream and journey from there, seeing changes in the industry particularly in the present time, with the movements of more diversity in media and entertainment.
I have been in this industry for over 30 years. I started off as a kid and when I started in the industry there weren’t many Asian performers, actors, films, shows and performances in Australia. So when I started I wasn’t just going for “Asian” roles, and really the first few major roles I got had nothing to do with being Asian.
I found actually as I have gotten older there has been a move towards more diversity in our industry and we have more choices in the characters we want to play and the stories we want to tell. There is still a lot more work to be done, but the start is there. The industry as a whole is also becoming more aware of the importance of diversity and this is what we need to continue to push.
In a time where there is a global push to encourage more women to study and work in STEM industries, it is timely that such a production is being shown. Where Franklin didn’t get the acknowledgement she deserved in 1951 being the primary “discoverer”, she was doing this work and research in days where women were not even encouraged to get out and have their own careers. It is an interesting discussion which Yuen spoke about whilst he reflected on the experiences of his own mother who studied science at the University of Sydney during the 1950s.
From my research Rosalind Franklin was a divisive personality. There are accounts from people who said she was a bundle of fun and others who said she was very cold and difficult to work with and that she was calculating. But in my opinion, I think she was someone who insisted on very high standards and she had a lot of integrity and was uncompromising in the pursuit of her career and dreams.
History has now realised that not acknowledging her as being one of the pioneers behind the discovery of DNA is and was an injustice, and I feel this is what the play aims to do – raising a number of issues around the discussions about the roles of women and men. Also thinking back my mum studied science at the University of Sydney during the 1950s, and really she would have been one of the few and possibly first women enrolled in science degrees considering how male dominated the time was. She persevered and did well, and I think being in this production is also for me to honour her experiences.
Finally Yuen mentioned that as an Asian Australian community in Australia we are getting better at coming out to support our content, but this needs to be organic and natural, and he hopes that more visibility which is seen in the media, in front and behind the screen and on stage will make this grow naturally.
There is more work to be done in getting our community out to support our content, but it is changing and it will continue to change. But I think this change comes with generational change with younger Asian Australians coming out and enjoying seeing themselves and their stories reflected on the screen and on stage.
More importantly, this needs to change organically and naturally rather than always having to make deliberate attempts to get our community out. But this will take time because you know, we are talking about unspooling decades if not centuries of cultural learning and getting out of the feeling of being the “other” because we are a minority in a white society.
“Photograph 51” has started its shows at the Ensemble Theatre on September 2nd and runs all the way till 8th October. Please click here or go to this link: https://www.ensemble.com.au/shows/photograph-51/ to check out show times and ticket prices.
Images via Ensemble Theatre and provided.