If you know anything at all about science, you’ll have heard of the “double helix” – the unique and oddly elegant way that molecules bind together to form DNA. You might well know that the discovery of the double helix is credited to James Watson and Francis Crick, working at Cambridge University in 1953. But what you probably don’t know is that they shared the Nobel Prize with another man, Maurice Wilkins… and that Wilkins’ colleague in London, Rosalind Franklin, is conspicuously absent from that most-treasured roll of honour.
In this hour-long monologue, which brings us face-to-face with Rosalind Franklin in an anonymous lab, playwright Rob Johnston explores some intriguing themes. He throws a light on different approaches to science – contrasting Franklin’s methodical deductions to Watson and Crick’s intuitive leaps – and poignantly evokes a loss of innocence, the slide from camaraderie to competition triggered by the race for the prize. He could perhaps do a little more to explain the structure of DNA itself: the one significant “science bit” is built round Franklin’s earlier work in a different field, and feels like something of a diversion. But under Johnston’s direction, actor Katherine Godfrey’s measured delivery and piercing stare both convey a clear sense of a determined and driven mind, a mind with the tenacity required to spend 100 hours producing a single world-changing photograph.
To my delight, Johnston also sidesteps a few tempting traps. He offers a rounded view of Watson and Crick, the men often blamed for usurping Franklin’s glory, and he’s careful to observe that she alone might never have untangled DNA’s double helix. Admirably too, he steers clear of overly-simplified allegations of misogyny; the true reason why Franklin couldn’t possibly have won the Nobel Prize is explained towards the end, in the process revealing that one of the production’s most piquant and meaningful props has been hidden in full view the whole time.
But this play is so diligently biographical – so even-handed and careful – that I found myself wondering at times whether it really made sense as a piece of theatre at all. Real life is a messy and complicated thing, and because it tracks real life so closely, An Extraordinary Light lacks the clear plot arc or underpinning thesis you’d normally expect from a play. What’s more, the monologue is all spoken in a single character’s voice, directly to the audience and with very little support from either sound or lighting. In the end it feels a bit like a lecture – albeit one that’s delivered by its own subject and from beyond the grave.
As was clear from an impromptu after-show Q&A, this uncompromising faithfulness to the facts (and just the facts) was central to Johnston’s vision. However, the parameters he’s set are enormously constraining ones, and I wished he’d allowed himself a little more leeway to analyse this intriguing tale. Presenting a theory to be tested by the facts is the essence of the scientific way.
But the play does end with an important lesson – a reminder of a truism we should all take care to remember – and Franklin’s life story is indisputably one that’s worth telling. And the final word has to go to Godfrey, whose confident and commanding performance proved every bit the equal of some detailed and difficult material. If it is a lecture, it’s a lecture of which Franklin herself might well have felt proud.