I actually didn’t go to see this play because of Nicole Kidman. No really, I didn’t. I’m cynical about star vehicles for Hollywood actors on London stages – they too often feel like a nakedly commercial trade-off (star gets credibility, theatre owner gets high-paying bums on seats), with the potential for dubious quality-control as a result. What actually convinced me to shell out for tickets (and believe me, they weren’t cheap – not the silly money being asked by producers of Elf this Christmas, but still enough to make the credit card groan) was the presence of one Edward Bennett. I first came across him in the RSC’s recent Love’s Labour’s Lost (see here) and he’s currently ranking as my favourite ever Benedick (see here) .
His presence seemed to suggest that this might be more than an exercise in money-grabbing. I did some research, and discovered that Photograph 51 was about scientist Rosalind Franklin, ‘the dark lady of DNA’, whose work laid the foundations for Crick and Watson’s discoveries about the structure of DNA, but who was largely forgotten by the scientific establishment after her early death. I’ve found Franklin’s story fascinating since I first half-heard something about her on Radio 4, many moons ago. And, OK, I was curious to see how Nicole Kidman handled herself on the London stage.
So, how did she do? Well, pretty well actually. She’s good at conveying both Franklin’s intelligence, and her prickliness, while still making her sympathetic. For me, there are moments – in this particular performance at least – where her relative lack of stage experience tells. Her opening speech didn’t project well to the back of the stalls, although this improved as the night wore on. She wasn’t helped by a somewhat fidgety audience – cold and flu season seems to have begun early in London, judging by the amount of coughing last night, and there seemed to be an irritatingly high number of whisperers as well (yes, couple behind me I’m looking – glaring – at you). Despite her star power, she didn’t always seem to have the presence of the more experienced stage actors surrounding her. But I would go and see her again – if she makes the London stage a habit – and next time it would be out of respect for her talents as an actress, rather than mere curiosity.
I am aware of the irony of seeing a show which celebrates the unjustly unrecognized work of a woman, and then heaping praise on her male colleagues. But they are a very, very classy bunch indeed. They’re led by Stephen Campbell Moore as Maurice Wilkins, Franklin’s bumbling colleague, who eventually shared the Nobel Prize with Crick and Watson after her death. The aforementioned Edward Bennett is customarily brilliant as the affable Crick, while Will Attenborough is a great mad-haired, abrasive Watson. I also liked Joshua Silver as Franklin’s PhD student Ray Gosling, who gets many of the play’s funniest lines.
They’re all well-served by Anna Ziegler’s script. It’s crisply written, and is very good at depicting both the clubby but back-biting world of male academia and the way that Franklin’s exclusion from it as a woman (at a time when the Kings College Senior Common Room was men-only) exacerbates the qualities that those same men criticise Franklin for – her refusal to collaborate, her suspicions about sharing data, her dependence upon facts and refusal to make the kind of leaps of intuition Crick and Watson do. It suggests that those problems faced by Franklin as a woman in a man’s world have almost paralysed her – unlike Crick and Watson, she feels unable to make mistakes.
As a depiction of scientific themes on stage this play has been compared unfavourably to the RSC’s recent Oppenheimer. Personally, although I loved that production, especially John Heffernan in the title role (see here) I thought this play could teach it a lot about brevity (Photograph 51 runs at a beautifully contained 95 minutes) and how to integrate science into a script without resorting to ‘here comes the science bit’ techniques. Also, well done to an American writer for depicting quintessentially British awkwardness so well.
I also liked the design of Michael Grandage’s production. The set is simultaneously grand and basic, with a backdrop depicting the towering walls and crumbling arches of a bomb-damaged, post WW2 Kings College, with minimal furniture or a bare stage in front of them. Characters not immediately involved in scenes lurk in the arches, watching and sometimes commenting upon the action. A less confident production would have felt the need to show us the models of the helix, around which the plot revolves. Here we see just beams of light, which Crick and Watson gaze at in awe.
Of course, it’s unlikely that a play by a largely unknown writer, about an obscure scientist, would be filling a West End theatre without the star power of Nicole Kidman. So – more power to her, for shining light into a dark corner of scientific history.