“The instant I saw the photograph my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race”
The biggest shame about the long awaited return of Nicole Kidman to the London stage is that it has given many a lazy hack an excuse to rehash ‘that’ Charles Spencer quote without considering just what they are reducing this Academy Award-winning actor to. Which perhaps is an irony that is suited to Photograph 51, the play that has brought her here, a portrait of British scientist Rosalind Franklin whose role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, of “the secret to life” itself as the publicity breathily puts it, is one that has been shamefully sidelined.
Anna Ziegler’s play explores the life of the research scientist with surprising depth and clarity – there’s no danger of being blinded by science here – as she follows the two rival teams trying to crack the code of the double helix. Franklin was the only woman working on either team and there is no hiding of the fact that she was strong-willed to the point of being obstinate and innately distrustful of those around her, even her King’s College colleagues, and thus showing how personality as much as intelligence had a role to play in the discoveries that were to come.
Michael Grandage’s production might surprise some in that it is more of an ensemble piece than a true star vehicle but that’s only to show the complexity of the situation and indeed of Franklin herself. The sure-voiced Kidman gives convincing life to this prickly persona but also leaves us questioning whether it is just a protective distancing mechanism or in fact the driving force that got her where she was. To argue had she been friendlier to her rivals she’d have got there first is to ignore the fact that her isolating determination may well have been a key part of her success.
Ziegler cleverly gives Franklin’s male compatriots fully rounded characters too, no easy villains here, and their debates about the decisions they made, the adrenaline of being so close, the justifications of how things played out offer alternative insights, not just into being a scientist but also into the flawed motivations that make us ineffably human. Stephen Campbell Moore and Joshua Silver as those on her side and Will Attenborough and Edward Bennett as Watson and Crick on the other, are all highly watchable, their experiences as inextricably entwined with Franklin’s as the double helix itself.
The floor of Christopher Oram’s set with its illuminated chequerboard effect atmospherically lit by Neil Austin works extremely well but the crumbling historical walls that climb upwards are the production’s only real mis-step, the combination is mainly baffling. But it’s a small thing in an impressive return to the stage for Kidman and a strong piece of theatre from Ziegler that manages to be compelling and compassionate without ever being condescending towards its subject, instead just raising Rosalind Franklin’s neglected profile and letting the audience wonder what price a Nobel Prize.