On Friday afternoon, two thirds of the cast of Photograph 51, plus two Directors and one Properties Manager, took a field trip to University College London, where many of the events of the play took place more than sixty five years ago. In this blog post, they tell all about what they discovered there.
First of all, we have to thank Professor Brian Sutton and Head of Archive Services Geoff Browell for making us so welcome, for giving up their time and for sharing their knowledge along with some gems from the astonishing material the College has in its archives. Seeing the original notes taken by the people we’re portraying was fascinating, giving us insight into the day to day work that we’re trying to recreate on-stage. Better still (from an actorly point of view at least) were the personal letters and postcards revealing the relationships and differing characters of the people involved – where Maurice Wilkins writes a three page letter, Francis Crick seemed to prefer a one-line postcard. We got a thorough grounding in the basics of X-ray crystallography and the science behind the discovery of DNA’s structure, which is certainly going to inform what we do onstage – the audience might not always know what we’re doing, but at least we will.
But in terms of getting close to the history, nothing touches seeing photograph 51 itself – the picture that changed everything – and the camera on which it was taken. They’re just objects, and you can easily look them up online, but actually seeing them is somehow different. I don’t know if it changes how we approach the play, but it does bring the reality of it home. As did our trip into the dingy sub-basements, where you can walk in the footsteps of Rosalind Franklin, Maurice Wilkins, Ray Gosling and their team. It’s as close as you can come to touching history, and you suddenly realise what makes this different to every other play you’ve done. I have acted in historical plays before, but never anything in which the history is so recent and so tangible. The trip brought home something we knew, but perhaps hadn’t really thought about; these were real people. They aren’t just characters fulfilling a purpose in a plotline, they exist beyond the pages of the play; they had good days and bad, they were right and they were wrong. Some of them are still alive, all of them have friends and family who are.
Learning more about the actual history when you’re doing a play like Photograph 51 is always a double-edged sword because, first and foremost, this is a drama. Not everything in the play is real and the more you learn the greater the wish to stop mid-scene and say ‘Hang on, let me explain this to you at greater length because it’s not as simple as it seems’. But the flip-side of that is that all the people are real and you feel a responsibility to play them as honestly as you can, to learn everything you can, to pay tribute to who they were and what they achieved. Frankly, I think we all now feel that we owe at least that much to these men and this one woman.
The history behind Photograph 51 is fascinating, but we’re not trying to educate our audience; we’re telling them a story that lies behind the science. It’s a story about people and we now feel that little bit closer to those people. That said, it’s also important to get that science right, because these people would have really, really cared.
Photograph 51 is on at the ADC Theatre from Tue 9 to Sat 13 April 2019 at 7.45pm. Take a look at their trailer below and book your tickets here.