An Extraordinary Light

"The Nobel prize, by canonising individuals, disguises the truth that they are all, in Newton's famous phrase, standing 'on giants' shoulders' and on each other's as well." So wrote Brenda Maddox in her biography of Rosalind Franklin, whose contribution to the discovery of the double-helix as the structure of DNA was questioned at the time and has been been fiercely debated ever since.

An Extraordinary Light will further illuminate the discussion about Rosalind Franklin but, like the lady herself, will probably not be seen as a giant of a play.

Katherine Godfrey has a difficult task on her hands in bringing alive this complex and controversial woman of science. In reviewing books and films on Franklin, Barbara J Martin points out that she “was often gracious and fun-loving but also by turns taciturn, petulant and just downright difficult to know.” That would certainly have been the experience of Francis Crick and James Watson at Cambridge University and Maurice Wilkins working with Franklin at King's College, London, but were they the men who “garnered science's top prize by commandeering the data of a poorly credited woman” or were they giants by the side of a lesser academic who had the misfortune to be a woman in a man’s world?

Katherine Godfrey gives an impeccably spoken performance of Rob Johnston’s finely structured one-woman play. The script is precise and sparse; words are not wasted in this scientifically analytical production. The simple desk and chair convey the spartan conditions under which Franklin worked and her returns to peer down the microscope work well as scene breaks. She looks at home in her lab coat and it adds to the lecturing style of address she adopts for much of this performance. She has the ability to look the audience in the eye, an unnerving trait of Franklin’s that disturbed many of her colleagues; there is an air of melancholy that dominates this performance as much as the molecular model that stands apart from her desk.

Godfrey’s understated performance is probably true to the woman herself. She has a cold presence and soulfully conveys Franklin’s sense of isolation and despair. Honesty, however, doesn’t necessarily make for gripping theatre. On stage the bitterness and resentment she must have felt requires more passion and intensity; a raised voice or maybe even an outburst of anger would not go amiss to enliven this lugubrious tale.

An Extraordinary Light will further illuminate the discussion about Rosalind Franklin but, like the lady herself, will probably not be seen as a giant of a play. 

Reviews by Richard Beck


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The Blurb

Rosalind Franklin's innovative experimental work on the structure of DNA helped Francis Crick and James Watson win a Nobel Prize. Yet Rosalind’s contribution remained unappreciated for decades. This play celebrates the achievements and tragedy of Rosalind Franklin, an expert in her field who dedicated her life to science at great personal cost. Written by the winner of The 2011 Kings Cross Award for New Writing for Einstein’s Daughter. ‘Johnston serves up a miniature masterclass in how to construct a story’ ( on Einstein’s Daughter).