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22/12/2014

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Science drama as human story

Joanne Coleman has seen Hidden Glory

In a small Yorkshire village on a foggy November evening, a crowd of people turned up to see a play about a woman many people have never heard of, and whose achievements fewer would be able to describe. The occasion? A performance of Georgina Ferry’s play Hidden Glory: Dorothy Hodgkin in her own words.

Through this one-woman performance, created almost entirely from Hodgkin’s own letters and writings, you were drawn under the spell of Dorothy Hodgkin, brilliantly portrayed by Miranda Cook, through whom her humanity, her strength and her passion for knowledge shone.

The play manages to encompass her childhood, her life as a student, her relationships with mentor JD Bernal and fellow scientists around the world, falling in love, getting married, having children, winning her Nobel Prize – all in 40 minutes, but never leaving you feeling as though you were missing out on anything.

Charm and imagination

In common with most science theatre, after the performance the audience were given the opportunity to question the author - and question they did. Georgina Ferry answered questions about her motivation, her research and what had not been included in the play. In the audience were people who had known Dorothy, all of whom confirmed that the portrayal had been true and evocative. It lent the evening a certain charm and emotion not generally associated with science.

I had heard of Dorothy Hodgkin but was hazy about her achievements. My sister, whom I dragged along with me, had never heard of her. I am quite used to attending science events of all genres. My sister would never think of spending her evening at a science event, but does enjoy a good drama. So I was intrigued to find out what she would think.

I was pleasantly surprised. Although she didn’t go away with an in-depth knowledge of the structure of penicillin, or the specifics of x-ray crystallography (and neither did I!), she did leave the theatre with a new appreciation of the journey of scientific endeavour, a renewed realisation that everything we take for granted to keep us well, to feed us, clothe us, was imagined and dreamt of by someone, who was dedicated and curious enough to pursue their ideas. It’s just not something she ever ponders in her daily life. Perhaps now she will a little bit more.

Science dramas

Over the last few years we have seen an increase in dramas at the British Science Festival (and not just behind the scenes!). They generally fall into three categories: celebrating the life and work of historic scientific figures (Hidden Glory; Hanging Hooke, Re:design), promoting science as something fun and exciting (Big Bang!), or encouraging discussion and debate of ethics around a scientific issue (Every Breath).  The latter two are particularly effective with teenagers.

What science drama does not do, it seems, is provide much actual scientific information. But it doesn’t matter. The stated ethos of Big Bang! is ‘through comedy, songs, live music, dance and drama, the show explores some aspects of the content and process of science, but particularly the importance of scientists as people’. That seems to me to be a particularly laudable aim.

As Georgina Ferry said: ‘The secret is not so much to find the right person as to find a powerful underlying human story that is inherently dramatic.’

And, as we all know, there are plenty of those in science.

See www.georginaferry.com/hiddenglory.html for more about Hidden Glory

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Jo Coleman
Jo Coleman is Science Festival Manager at the British Science Association
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