“I suppose she just wasn’t exceptional enough”: at first a seemingly passing statement but in the final moments of Anna Ziegler’s play, Photograph 51, Nicole Kidman summarises her character Dr Rosalind Franklin’s painfully introvert but resilient and finally cheated life. Franklin all but discovered the groundbreaking secrets of life as she, along with her PhD student Ray Gosling, took the photograph that would ultimately change everything. Described as “the most beautiful X-ray photograph of any substance ever taken”, the image illustrated exactly how DNA worked and would contribute significantly to huge future advances in science – including palaeontology. That means Jurassic Park people!
The fact that the ‘final strand’ of her discovery would be taken away and claimed by rival scientists Francis Crick and James Watson as wholly their own, perhaps highlights the plight of a woman in such a prestigious and envied position as hers in the early 1950s. Or perhaps she just wasn’t quick enough. Franklin’s unwillingness to fight such duplicitous dealings; to not appear to actually care frames Kidman’s sad, sad depiction of a brilliant woman plagued by insecurities and especially with her male counterparts, both in a professional and personal manner.
Michael Grandage’s first West End production since his star-studded triple-bill two years ago, once again boasts an A-list cast with Kidman in the lead and Stephen Campbell Moore opposite. Her striking, yet stern looks work well as the often exasperated Franklin. Kidman turns much of the character’s disdain into dry comedy which often generates great guffaws of laughter from the audience. I find the subtle, knowing looks she gives us and fatigue with the whole of mankind the most endearing and it is here we see the actress’s excellent comfort with a live audience. It has been over fifteen years since she graced the London stage (1998’s The Blue Room) but she could have spent her whole career on it.
Campbell Moore’s Maurice Wilkins finds himself almost immediately falling in love with his new colleague. He appears and portrays himself as much older than his years, leaving only a minor impression. Nonetheless he holds himself well under Kidman’s intimidating glares. Will Attenborough’s boyish Watson is quite brilliant; appearing out of the dark misogynistic beyond to stamp all over Franklin’s hard work. Her assistant, Joshua Silver’s Gosling, is impressed yet baffled by her. With the most time spent in front of the audience, bar Kidman, Silver shares the long journey and ecstatic realisations of what they have discovered with perfect ease and conviction.
Set within a series of post-war damaged labs below King’s College, London, Christopher Oram has thrown us into a dark and foreboding nightmare. Blown apart by bombs it may be envisaged, but closer to the ruins of ancient Greece it is. Initially it is not difficult to imagine Theseus creeping across the stage in search of his Minotaur. As the action carries on throughout Photograph 51, characters are cloaked in dark arches with Neil Austin’s spectacular lighting striking at every scene.
Photograph 51 is exceptionally presented and has a magnificent cast. There’s no lead up to the big A-lister; Kidman is there, with everyone else, right at the beginning. The very real story of Franklin is as phenomenally fascinating as it is sad. There’s a bit of ambiguity with why she behaves the way she does and only one scene in which she presents what is apparently in her head – what she wishes she could have said that provides some insight into the lonely and passionate person below the harsh exterior. This is a story that needs to be heard and, whilst slightly slow, is a must-see.
Photograph 51 is playing at the Noel Coward Theatre until 21 November. For more information and tickets, see the Delfont Mackintosh tickets website. Photo by Noel Coward Theatre.