Photograph 51 (WE 2015)
Sep 14, 2015
The last time Nicole Kidman appeared on stage it was a hot ticket in more ways than one. Her performance in The Blue Room - David Hare\\\'s adaptation of the sexual merry-go-round play La Ronde - inspired Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph to describe it as \\\"pure theatrical Viagra\\\", perhaps the most infamous line in the history of theatre criticism. In New York there were reports that people of the Spencer mentality were publicising which seats offered the best views of her bare bottom.
Seventeen years later she\\\'s back on stage and although the production is a hot ticket the character she plays is a cold fish. Fans of her star turn in Moulin Rouge will find this closer to her role as Virginia Woolf in The Hours.
Rosalind Franklin was the scientist centrally responsible to the understanding of DNA while working at Kings College London in the 1950s. As she tells us in the play (in one of the many moments of direct address) her father had warned her that if she wanted to pursue a career in science, never to be wrong as to be wrong could undermine a lifetime\\\'s work. This was advice she took, but the pressure and tension she experienced in the pursuit of the impossible was considerable.
Not only was she working alongside (and also against) other scientists who wanted to crack this particular enigma but she was working in a context in which collaborating with a woman was not good for their credo. It is a \\\'woman in a man\\\'s world\\\' story and this ingredient is pursued in the play with more interest than the science. Her main colleague Maurice Wilkins, played by Stephen Campbell Moore (the young teacher in The History Boys), has plenty of problems trying to connect with her as a colleague, a scientist, a woman and a friend, clearly not being adept at dealing with someone on any of these levels. Ironically for a character whose gender was as big a block to achieving success as the science, Franklin died of ovarian cancer aged 37.
On Christopher Oram\\\'s characteristically attractive composite set with the Kings College quad towering above and a glowing Perspex floor below (albeit the latter almost invisible from the stalls), director Michael Grandage keeps the play moving through its many episodic scenes with his customary fluidity. Many of these short scenes are linked with narration by the cast, or sometimes by correspondence exchanged between Franklin and others. It is essentially a docu-drama, and as such foregrounds the telling of the story of Franklin\\\'s time at Kings above any character development. It would be hard to say that any of the characters change over the course of the evening - something that is normally fundamental to a good play; they are all there only to facilitate the telling of an under-appreciated episode of scientific history.
The play offers sprinklings of amusing banter and is laced with the understated misogyny of the time and place. But with Franklin herself such a cold and unlovable character (it is indeed this coldness that is the double helix of the evening) we need some substance from the others to give us someone to root for. While we can be impressed by Franklin\\\'s achievement, it is hard to care for her on a personal level. It\\\'s a story that deserves to be more widely known, and the closing scene makes it clear that this is the author\\\'s view as well. But as a play it\\\'s rather less than the sum of its molecular structure.
Kidman, performing with an impressive English accent, plays an unshowy part with commendable unshowiness. It is indeed a surprising choice of role for a star of such magnitude to make. This is no Elephant Man or Funny Girl. It\\\'s an ensemble piece. It\\\'s a performance much closer to her work in Australia or Rabbit Hole than Moulin Rouge or To Die For.
The play would work better had it played in Grandage\\\'s former theatre, the Donmar Warehouse, where one could feel more intimate with a play that largely consists of people in white coats peering at images and delivering monologues. The smallness of the play (and the central performance) makes it an unusual fit for a 1,000 seat West End house.
But it is a pleasure (and a rare one) to see such a major star do what she does; Kidman is no mere movie \\\"star\\\" or celebrity, she has always been a famous movie actor, and she demonstrates this here with ease.
The ticket prices are exorbitant at the top end but if you can get yourself a more moderately priced seat (particularly one of the much-publicised £10 day seats) then Photograph 51 is worth beating a path to. it may focus on cold science but it is one of this year\\\'s hot tickets.
Originally posted: Places & Faces magazine, October 2015