“One sees something new every time one looks at truly beautiful things.”
There is a crackle of electricity as the house lights dim in the Noel Coward Theatre. London has waited 16 years for the return of one of the greatest stars of Hollywood’s nineties and noughties. This Oscar Winning Best Actress has that rarest of things – genuine star quality – and the starkness of the contrast between Kidman’s radiance and the grubby post WW2 set could not be more pronounced.
A set bathed almost in moonlight which hints at the brooding secrecy of the work which a generation of scientists carried out and which unlocked the very code of human life – a clever use of Christopher Oram’s minimal design allows the performances to shine through. They are luminary if not always illuminating: It would be a very big ask indeed to try to explain the double-helix of stranded DNA without bogging the whole thing down in a period of double-science. That playwright Anna Ziegler doesn’t seem to try is both the play’s triumph and tragedy. I have to confess to leaving the theatre none the wiser about the differences between A-DNA and B-DNA.
The language of the play is at once beautiful and repetitive – “Shapes overlapping…Nothing is ever just one thing” – these phrases repeat like the very patterns Franklin was seeking in the swirling mist of water droplets of a childhood trip to a glacier. The play is at times a scientific experiment in its own right, overlaying a series of monologues, vignettes, narration and letters. Kidman’s delivery of the line “I drew patterns” is as much a reference to writer Anna Ziegler as to Rosalind Franklin.
Both Kidman’s performance and Oram’s designs imbue Franklin with a matronly austerity. This pared down majesty is both tribute to Franklin’s command of her subject and to her tireless searching for scientific truths – and her vision plays perfectly with Kidman’s strengths as an actress. From the moment she steps on stage, Kidman’s eyes pierce like X-rays into the audience.
Occasionally one has the feeling that this is a film on stage, and certainly it has the potential to transfer to that medium at a later date. The characters are sometimes detached from the audience, and Kidman does feel more aloof than the real Franklin, who was also known to be witty and engaging. The audience may marvel at the impeccable precision of her delivery and the electricity in Kidman’s performance, but it comes at the expense of genuine warmth.
At times it seems to be a play bound up in its own cleverness and is a little frigid. Through its dialogue, the play asks, “Could it be any gloomier here”? The answer is in some ways, no. Both set and subject hardly lend themselves to levity, and while there are humorous moments, they too often come at the expense of James Watson’s unruly hair (a fine, hirsute performance by Will Attenborough). It all feels a little cheap, and that’s a shame in a play which promises so much, and raises so many important questions and could have found more intelligent laughs elsewhere…like the genuinely funny moment that Franklin wonders if she is on a date having never actually been on one before.
It would be very easy to overlook the male performances in Photograph 51. Stephen Campbell Moore is, at first, a vulnerable and complex Maurice Wilkins, resistant to Franklin and seemingly threatened by her determined approach. He softens and capitulates to the point where he becomes almost a caricature and with his voice slightly buried in his throat, reminded me more than once of a young Peter Davison. Joshua Silver as put-upon research scientist Ray Gosling provides light relief and delivers his sporadic lines with perfect timing. The cast is completed by excellent performances from Edward Bennett as Francis Crick and Patrick Kennedy as Don Caspar who cleverly vocalises many of Franklin’s own internalised feelings.
In fact, it is the character of Don Caspar who does go some way to allow a glimpse of a more socially outward-looking Franklin, although perhaps the most affecting relationship is one never seen on the stage – that of Franklin and her father: A man who seems to have inspired her love of Shakespeare Plays, many of which her father memorised – “Well, the good ones anyway”. That same father may have given his daughter the determination to pursue that most important of scientific necessities – proof. He also gave the young Rosalind a determination to never be wrong – “Our push to publish means our publications are littered with mistakes”.
Franklin’s death is sudden. Her cancer doesn’t mess about and seems to strike over dinner, which is slightly odd dramatically. The play might, but never does, ask how much may Franklin’s premature death might have been caused by her prolonged exposure to X-rays, or what further contribution she may have made to science had not her very work have hastened her demise. There is tragic irony that doing so much to deconstruct the science of DNA of life cost her own.
Anna Ziegler, Nicole Kidman and Michael Grandage should be applauded for bringing such an important story to the West End stage, and if you can get a Photograph 51 ticket (no mean feat if the queues outside the theatre were anything to go by), this work poses important questions about why we still aren’t making the most of the incredible women who make science their future and why their hard-earned doctorates should ever have meant less.
And as for Kidman herself? One line has perfect resonance as she recounts the way Franklin saw the beauty in science. “We were seeing God”. Franklin herself once challenged her own mother that if there were a God, why would that not be a woman? Seeing Kidman on stage, one realises she had a point.
Photograph 51 is at the Noel Coward theatre (0844 482 5141)
Until 21st November 2015